Increase Mather, one of Puritan New England’s foremost ministers and scholars, died in 1723 at his home in Boston. As he lay “feeble and sore broken” upon his death bed, he faced his life’s end with desperate “fear and trembling.” He was tormented by the thought that he might be bound for Hell. John Tappin died in Boston in 1673 at the age of 18. He, too, suffered bitter spiritual torment in the face of death. Although he had been a godly youth, he bemoaned “his hardness of heart and blindness of mind” and feared that he was destined for eternal damnation. These were notes written from family members and noted in the work by Phillipe Aries in his much-acclaimed classical book, The Hour of Our Death.
For seventeenth century New Englanders, death was a grim and terrifying reality. Of the first 102 Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620, half died during the first winter. Death rates soon fell sharply, until they were about a third below those in England, France, or the colonial Chesapeake, but death still remained an omnipresent part of life. The tolling of church bells on the day of funerals was so common that it was legislated against as a public nuisance. It was customary in colonial New England to send a pair of gloves to friends and relatives to invite them to funerals. Andrew Eliot, minister of Boston’s North Church, saved the gloves that people sent to him. In 32 years he collected 3,000 pairs.
Death reached into all corners of life, striking people of all ages, not just the old. In the healthiest regions, one child in ten died during the first year of life. In less healthy areas, like Boston, the figure was three in ten. Cotton Mather, the famous Boston minister, had 14 children. Seven died in infancy and just one lived to the age of thirty. Bacterial stomach infections, intestinal worms, epidemic diseases, contaminated food and water, and neglect and carelessness all contributed to a society in which 40 percent of children failed to reached adulthood in the seventeenth century.
Epidemics accounted for a large proportion of deaths–sweeping thousands of people away in the course of a few months. Diphtheria, influenza, measles, pneumonia, scarlet fever, and smallpox ravaged the population, producing death rates as high as 30 per thousand. A smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1677-78 killed one-fifth of the town’s population. Many of the individuals who survived a smallpox epidemic were left blind or pockmarked for life. Conflict with Indians also took many lives. One Indian war, the Pequot War of 1675, killed a larger percentage of the population than any later war in American history.
How, then, did Puritans respond to the ever-present reality of death? A deep, underlying tension characterized the Puritan view of death. On the one hand, in line with a long Christian tradition, the Puritans viewed death as a blessed release from the trials of this world into the joys of everlasting life. At the same time, the Puritans regarded death as God’s punishment for human sinfulness and on their deathbeds many New Englanders trembled with fear that they might suffer eternal damnation in Hell.
From their earliest upbringing, Puritans were taught to fear death. Ministers terrorized young children with graphic descriptions of Hell and the horrors of eternal damnation and told them that at the Last Judgment their own parents would testify against them. Fear of death was also inculcated by showing young children corpses and public hangings.
Puritans believed that even the youngest child was touched by original sin. As Benjamin Wadsworth put it, “their Hearts naturally, are a mere nest, root, fountain of Sin, and wickedness.” Accordingly, young children were continually reminded that their probable destination was Hell. Cotton Mather put the point bluntly: “Go into Burying-Place, CHILDREN; you will there see Graves as short as your selves. Yea, you may be at Play one Hour; Dead, Dead the next.” Even their schoolbooks repeatedly reminded Puritan children of the death and Hell: “Tis not likely that you will all live to grow up.” “T–Time cuts down all/Both great and small.”
Adults, too, looked upon death with foreboding. Puritan theology denied that individuals had any assurance of salvation. God had decided their fate at the time of creation and His will was inscrutable. It was a delusion to think that God in His mercy would forgive their sins and take them to Heaven. Consequently, many Puritans like Increase Mather and John Tappin suffered desperate spiritual torment and anxiety in the face of death.
Since there was nothing that friends or relatives could do to alter the fate of a dying Puritan, there was no place in Puritan New England for expensive and elaborate religious rites or ceremonies. Funeral sermons offered no individual eulogies for the dead and funeral monuments were kept plain and simple. The first grave markers were wooden and early grave stones contained words but no designs because the Puritans thought that the Second Commandment prohibited the use of graven images. Elaborate funerals or headstones seemed like idolatry. (The original headstones faced east, so that on the morning of the Day of Resurrection, the bodies will respectfully face their Holy Father).
Gradually, the stark Puritan view of death softened. After 1650 Puritan funerals became increasingly elaborate and expensive and tombstones less plain. Corpses began to be embalmed in order to allow time for families to plan funerals and for guests to gather. Especially after the Great Awakening–the intense religious revival that swept the American colonies beginning in the 1720s–attitudes toward death began to change. Where, in the seventeenth century, children were told to fear death, they were increasingly told in the eighteenth century look forward to death as a reunion with God and their parents. Adults, in turn, were increasingly assured that a life of active piety assured salvation. Conversations regarding death became a more normal occurrence in the home.
In cemeteries, which were described as “dormitories,” winged cherubs replaced the grisly death’s heads and winged skulls that marked early Puritan graves. Symbols–such as urns and willows–began to appear in graveyards after the American revolution and the discovery of the archaeological remains at Pompeii. The wording on gravestones also changed–reflecting a dramatic transformation in American views of death. Instead of saying, “Here lies buried the body of,” inscriptions began to read, “here rests the soul of,” suggesting that while the corporeal body might decay the soul survived. Death was increasingly regarded as merely a temporary separation of loved ones.
Have our attitudes changed much since early America? During the height of the pandemic and with people being separated from their families our fear of being separated and dying alone has escalated.
Our collective silence about death, suffering and mortality places a tremendous burden on the people we love, and on the doctors and nurses navigating these conversations. We should not be discussing our loved one’s wishes for the first time when they are in an I.C.U. bed, voiceless and pinned in place by machines and tubes.
Talking about death is ultimately talking about life — about who and what matters to us, and how we can live well even when we are dying. Rather than being motivated by fear and anxiety, we can start these discussions now from a place of care and concern.