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Customs and Fashions in Old New England
by Alice Morse Earle
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At the funeral of Thomas Thornhill "17 pair of White Gloves at L1 15s. 6d., 31-1/2 yard Corle for Scarfs L3 10s. 10-1/2d., and Black and White Ribbin" were paid for. In 1737 Sir William Pepperell sent to England for "4 pieces Hat mourning and 2 pieces of Cyprus or Hood mourning." This hat mourning took the form of long weepers, which were worn on the hat at the funeral, and as a token of respect afterward by persons who were not relatives of the deceased. Judge Sewall was always punctilious in thus honoring the dead in his community. On May 2, 1709, he writes thus:

"Being artillery day and Mr. Higginson dead I put on my mourning Rapier and put a mourning ribbon in my little Cane."

Rings were given at funerals, especially in wealthy families, to near relatives and persons of note in the community. Sewall records in his diary, in the years from 1687 to 1725, the receiving of no less than fifty-seven mourning rings. We can well believe the story told of Doctor Samuel Buxton, of Salem, who died in 1758, aged eighty-one years, that he left to his heirs a quart tankard full of mourning rings which he had received at funerals; and that Rev. Andrew Eliot had a mugful. At one Boston funeral, in 1738, over two hundred rings were given away. At Waitstill Winthrop's funeral sixty rings, worth over a pound apiece, were given to friends. The entire expense of the latter-named funeral—scutcheons, hatchments, scarves, gloves, rings, bell-tolling, tailor's bills, etc., was over six hundred pounds. This amounted to one-fifth of the entire estate of the deceased gentleman.

These mourning rings were of gold, usually enamelled in black, or black and white. They were frequently decorated with a death's-head, or with a coffin with a full-length skeleton lying in it, or with a winged skull. Sometimes they held a framed lock of hair of the deceased friend. Sometimes the ring was shaped like a serpent with his tail in his mouth. Many bore a posy. In the Boston News Letter of October 30, 1742, was advertised: "Mourning Ring lost with the Posy Virtue & Love is From Above." Here is another advertisement from the Boston Evening Post:

"Escaped unluckily from me A Large Gold Ring, a Little Key; The Ring had Death engraved upon it; The Owners Name inscribed within it; Who finds and brings the same to me Shall generously rewarded be."

A favorite motto for these rings was: "Death parts United Hearts." Another was the legend: "Death conquers all;" another, "Prepare for Death;" still another, "Prepared be To follow me." Other funeral rings bore a family crest in black enamel.

Goldsmiths kept these mourning rings constantly on hand. "Deaths Heads Rings" and "Burying Rings" appear in many newspaper advertisements. When bought for use the name or initials of the dead person, and the date of his death, were engraved upon the ring. This was called fashioning. It is also evident from existing letters and bills that orders were sent by bereaved ones to friends residing at a distance to purchase and wear mourning rings in memory of the dead, and send the bills to the heirs or the principals of the mourning family. Thus, after the death of Andrew, son of Sir William Pepperell, Mr. Kilby, of London, wrote to the father that he accepted "that melancholy token of y'r regard to Mrs. K. and myself at the expense of four guineas in the whole. But, as is not unusual here on such occasions, Mrs. K. has, at her own expense, added some sparks of diamonds to some other mournful ornaments to the ring, which she intends to wear."

It is very evident that old New Englanders looked with much eagerness to receiving a funeral ring at the death of a friend, and in old diaries, almanacs, and note-books such entries as this are often seen: "Made a ring at the funeral," "A death's-head ring made at the funeral of so and so;" or, as Judge Sewall wrote, "Lost a ring" by not attending the funeral. The will of Abigail Ropes, in 1775, gives to her grandson "a gold ring I made at his father's death;" and again, "a gold ring made when my bro. died."

As with gloves, rings of different values were given to relatives of different degrees of consanguinity, and to friends of different stations in life; much tact had to be shown, else much offence might be taken.

I do not know how long the custom of giving mourning rings obtained in New England. Some are in existence dated 1812, but were given at the funeral of aged persons who may have left orders to their descendants to cling to the fashion of their youth.

A very good collection of mourning rings may be seen at the rooms of the Essex Institute in Salem, and that society has also published a pamphlet giving a list of such rings known to be in existence in Salem.

As years passed on a strong feeling sprang up against these gifts and against the excessive wearing of mourning garments because burdensome in expense. Judge Sewall notes, in 1721, the first public funeral "without scarfs." In 1741 it was ordered by Massachusetts Provincial Enactment that "no Scarves, Gloves (except six pair to the bearers and one pair to each minister of the church or congregation where any deceased person belongs), Wine, Rum, or rings be allowed to be given at any funeral upon the penalty of fifty pounds." The Connecticut Courant of October 24, 1764, has a letter from a Boston correspondent which says, "It is now out of fashion to put on mourning for nearest relatives, which will make a saving to this town of L20,000 per annum." It also states that a funeral had been held at Charlestown at which no mourning had been worn. At that of Ellis Callender in the same year, the chief mourner wore in black only bonnet, gloves, ribbons, and handkerchief. Letters are in existence from Boston merchants to English agents rebuking the latter for sending mourning goods, such as crapes, "which are not worn." A newly born and fast-growing spirit of patriotic revolt gave added force to the reform. Boston voted, in October, 1767, "not to use any mourning gloves but what are manufactured here," and other towns passed similar resolutions. It was also suggested that American mourning gloves be stamped with a patriotic emblem. In 1788 a fine of twenty shillings was imposed on any person who gave scarfs, gloves, rings, wine, or rum at a funeral; who bought any new mourning apparel to wear at or after a funeral, save a crape arm-band if a masculine mourner, or black bonnet, fan, gloves, and ribbons if a woman. This law could never have been rigidly enforced, for much gloomy and ostentatious pomp obtained in the larger towns even to our own day. "From the tombs a mournful sound" seemed to be fairly a popular sound, and the long funeral processions, always taking care to pass the Town House, churches, and other public buildings, obstructed travel, and men were appointed in each town by the selectmen to see that "free passage in the streets be kept open." Funerals were forbidden to be held on the Lord's Day, because it profaned the sacred day, through the vast concourse of children and servants that followed the coffin through the streets.

Some attempt was made to regulate funeral expenses. In Salem a tolling of the bell could cost but eightpence, and "the sextons are desired to toll the bells but four strokes in a minute." The undertakers could charge but eight shillings for borrowing chairs, waiting on the pall-holders, and notifying relatives to attend.

The early graves were frequently clustered, were even crowded in irregular groups in the churchyard; and in larger towns, the dead—especially persons of dignity—were buried, as in England, under the church. Sargent, in his "Dealings with the Dead," speaks at length of the latter custom, which prevailed to an inordinate extent in Boston. In smaller settlements some out-of-the-way spot was chosen for a common burial-place, in barren pasture or on lonely hillside, thus forcibly proving the well-known lines of Whittier,

"Our vales are sweet with fern and rose, Our hills are maple crowned, But not from them our fathers chose The village burial ground.

"The dreariest spot in all the land To Death they set apart; With scanty grace from Nature's hand And none from that of Art."

To the natural loneliness of the country burial-place and to its inevitable sadness, is now too frequently added the gloomy and depressing evidence of human neglect. Briers and weeds grow in tangled thickets over the forgotten graves; birch-trees and barberry bushes spring up unchecked. In one a thriving grove of lilac bushes spreads its dusty shade from wall to wall. Winter-killed shrubs of flowering almond or snowballs, planted in tender memory, stand now withered and unheeded, and the few straggling garden flowers—crimson phlox or single hollyhocks—that still live only painfully accent the loneliness by showing that this now forgotten spot was once loved, visited, and cared for.

In many cases the worn gravestone lies forlornly face downward; sometimes,

"The slab has sunk; the head declined, And left the rails a wreck behind. No names; you trace a '6'—a '7,' Part of 'affliction' and of 'Heaven.' And then in letters sharp and clear, You read.—O Irony austere!— 'Tho' lost to Sight, to Memory dear.'"

"Truly our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly show us how we may be buried in our survivors.'" Still, this neglect and oblivion is just as satisfactory as was the officious "deed without a name" done in orderly Boston, where, in the first half of this century, a precise Superintendent of Graveyards and his army of assistants—what Charles Lamb called "sapient trouble-tombs"—straightened out mathematically all the old burial-places, levelled the earth, and set in trim military rows the old slate headstones, regardless of the irregular clusters of graves and their occupants.

And there in Boston the falsifying old headstones still stand, fixed in new places, but marking no coffins or honored bones beneath; the only true words of their inscriptions being the opening ones "Here lies," and the motto that they repeat derisively to each other—"As you are now so once was I."

In many communities each family had its own burying-place in some corner of the home farm, sometimes at the foot of garden or orchard. Such is noticeably the case throughout Narragansett; almost every farm has a grave-yard, now generally unused and deserted. Sometimes the burying-place is enclosed by a high mossy stone wall, often it is overgrown with dense sombre firs or hemlocks, or half shaded with airy locust-trees. Beautifully ideal and touching is the thought of these old Narragansett planters resting with their wives and children in the ground they so dearly loved and so faithfully worked for.

A vast similarity of design existed in the early gravestones. Originality of inscription, carving, size, or material was evidently frowned upon as frivolous, undignified, and eccentric—even disrespectful. A few of the early settlers used freestone or sienite, or a native porphyritic green stone called beech-bowlder. Sandstone was rarely employed, for though easily carved, it as easily yielded to New England frosts and storms. A hard, dark, flinty slate-stone from North Wales was commonly used, a stone so hard and so enduring that when our modern granite and marble monuments are crumbled in the dust I believe these old slate headstones still will speak their warning words of many centuries.

"As I am now so you shall be, Prepare for Death & follow me."

These stones were imported from England ready carved. A high duty was placed on them, and a Boston sea captain endeavored and was caught in the attempt to bring into port, free of duty, for one of his friends, one of these carved slate gravestones, by entering it as a winding-sheet. It is one of the curiosities of New England commercial enterprises, that for many years gravestones should have been imported to New England, a land that fairly bristles with stone and rock thrusting itself through the earth and waiting to be carved.

The Welsh stones were made of a universal pattern—a carved top with a space enclosing a miserable death's or winged cherub's head as a heading, a border of scrolls down either side of the inscription, and rarely a design at the base. Weeping willows and urns did not appear in the carving at the top until the middle of the eighteenth century, and fought hard with the grinning cherub's head until this century, when both were supplanted by a variety of designs—a clock-face, hour-glass, etc. Capital letters were used wholly in the inscriptions until Revolutionary times, and even after were mixed with Roman text with so little regard for any printer's law that, at a little distance, many a New England tombstone of the latter part of the past century seems to be carven in hieroglyphics.

Special families in New England seem to have appropriated special verses as epitaphs, evidently because of the rhyme with the surname. Thus the Jones family were properly proud of this family rhyme:

"Beneath this Ston's Int'r'd the Bon's Ah Frail Remains Of Lieut Noah Jones"—

or Mary Jones or William Jones, as the case might be.

The Noyes family delighted in these lines:

"You children of the name of Noyes Make Jesus Christ yo'r only choyse."

The Tutes and Shutes and Roots began their epitaphs thus:

"Here lies cut down like unripe fruit The wife of Deacon Amos Shute."

Gershom Root was "cut down like unripe fruit" at the fully mellowed age of seventy-three.

A curiously incomprehensible epitaph is this, which always strikes me afresh, upon each perusal, as a sort of mortuary conundrum:

"O! Happy Probationer! Accepted without being Exercised."

Sometimes an old epitaph will be found of such impressive though simple language that it clings long in the memory. Such is this verse of gentle quaintness over the grave of a tender Puritan blossom, the child of an early settler:

"Submit Submitted to her heavenly Kinge Being a flower of that Aeternal Spring Neare 3 years old shee dyed in Heaven to waite The Yeare was sixteen hundred 48."

Another of unusual beauty and sentiment is this:

"I came in the morning—it was Spring And I smiled. I walked out at noon—it was Summer And I was glad. I sat me down at even—it was Autumn And I was sad. I laid me down at night—it was Winter And I slept."

Collections of curious old epitaphs have been made and printed, but seem dull and colorless on the printed page, and the warning words seem to lose their power unless seen in the sad graveyard, where, "silently expressing old mortality," the hackneyed rhymes and tender words are touching from their very simplicity and the loneliness which surrounds them, and for their calm repetition, on stone after stone, of an undying faith in a future life.

One cannot help being impressed, when studying the almanacs, diaries, and letters of the time, with the strange exaltation of spirit with which the New England Puritan regarded death. To him thoughts of mortality were indeed cordial to the soul. Death was the event, the condition, which brought him near to God and that unknown world, that "life elysian" of which he constantly spoke, dreamed and thought; and he rejoiced mightily in that close approach, in that sense of touch with the spiritual world. With unaffected cheerfulness he yielded himself to his own fate, with unforced resignation he bore the loss of dearly loved ones, and with eagerness and almost affection he regarded all the gloomy attributes and surroundings of death. Sewall could find in a visit to his family tomb, and in the heart-rending sight of the coffins therein, an "awfull yet pleasing Treat;" while Mr. Joseph Eliot said "that the two days wherein he buried his wife and son were the best he ever had in the world." The accounts of the wondrous and almost inspired calm which settled on those afflicted hearts, bearing steadfastly the Christian belief as taught by the Puritan church, make us long for the simplicity of faith, and the certainty of heaven and happy reunion with loved ones which they felt so triumphantly, so gloriously.

- Transcriber's Note Spelling, punctuation and inconcistencies in the original book have been retained. The oe ligature has been shown as [oe]. -

THE END

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