FUNERAL AND BURIAL CUSTOMS
THE earliest New Englanders had no religious services at a funeral. Not wishing to "confirm the popish error that prayer is to be used for the dead or over the dead," they said no words, either of grief, resignation, or faith, but followed the coffin and filled the grave in silence. Lechford has given us a picture of a funeral in New England in the seventeenth century, which is full of simple dignity, if not of sympathy:
"At Burials nothing is read, nor any funeral sermon made, but all the neighborhood or a goodly company of them come together by tolling of the bell, and carry the dead solemnly to his grave, and then stand by him while he is buried. The ministers are most commonly present."
As was the fashion in England at that date, laudatory verses and sentences were fastened to the bier or herse. The name herse was then applied to the draped catafalque or platform upon which the candles stood and the coffin rested, not as now the word hearse to a carriage for the conveyance of the dead. Sewall says of the funeral of the Rev. Thomas Shepherd: "There were some verses, but none pinned on the Herse." These verses were often printed after the funeral. The publication of mourning broadsides and pamphlets, black-bordered and dismal, was a large duty of the early colonial press. They were often decorated gruesomely with skull and crossbones, scythes, coffins, and hour-glasses, all-seeing eyes with rakish squints, bow-legged skeletons, and miserable little rosetted winding-sheets.
A writer in the New England Courant of November 12, 1722, says:
"Of all the different species of poetry now in use I find the Funeral Elegy to be most universally admired and used in New England. There is scarce a plough jogger or country cobler that has read our Psalms and can make two lines jingle, who has not once in his life at least exercised his talent in this way. Nor is there one country house in fifty which has not its walls garnished with half a Score of these sort of Poems which praise the Dead to the Life."
When a Puritan died his friends conspired in mournful concert, or labored individually and painfully, to bring forth as tributes of grief and respect, rhymed elegies, anagrams, epitaphs, acrostics, epicediums, and threnodies; and singularly enough, seemed to reserve for these gloomy tributes their sole attempt at facetiousness. Ingenious quirks and puns, painful and complicate jokes (printed in italics that you may not escape nor mistake them) bestrew these funeral verses. If a man chanced to have a name of any possible twist of signification, such as Green, Stone, Blackman, in doleful puns did he posthumously suffer; and his friends and relatives endured vicariously also, for to them these grinning death's-heads of rhymes were widely distributed.
It was with a keen sense of that humor which comes, as Sydney Smith says, from sudden and unexpected contrast, that I read a heavily bordered sheet entitled in large letters, "A Grammarian's Funeral." It was printed at the death of Schoolmaster Woodmancey, and was so much admired that it was brought forth again at the demise of Ezekiel Cheever, who died in 1708 after no less than seventy years of school-teaching. I think we may truly say of him, teaching at ninety-three years of age,
"With throttling hands of death at strife,
Ground he at grammar."
For the consideration and investigation of Browning Societies, I give a few lines from this New England conception of a Grammarian's Funeral.
"Eight parts of Speech This Day wear Mourning Gowns,
Declin'd Verbs, Pronouns, Participles, and Nouns.
The Substantive seeming the limbed best
Would set an hand to bear him to his Rest.
The Adjective with very grief did say
Hold me by Strength or I shall faint away.
Great Honour was conferred on Conjugations
They were to follow next to the Relations
* * * * * * * * *
But Lego said, by me his got his Skill
And therefore next the Herse I follow will
A Doleful Day for Verbs they look so Moody
They drove Spectators to a mournful Study."
I have a strong suspicion that this funeral poem may have been learned by heart by succeeding generations of Boston scholars, as a sort of grammatical memory-rhyme a mournful study, indeed.
Funeral sermons were also printed, with trappings of sombreness, black-bordered, with death's-heads and crossbones on the covers. These sermons were not, however, preached at the time of the funeral, save in exceptional cases. It is said that one was delivered at the funeral of President Chauncey in 1671. Cotton Mather preached one at the funeral of Fitz-John Winthrop in 1707, and another at the funeral of Waitstill Winthrop in 1717. Gradually there crept in the custom of having suitable prayers at the house before the burial procession formed, the first instance being probably at the funeral of Pastor Adams, of Roxbury, in 1683. Sometimes a short address was given at the grave, as when Jonathan Alden was buried at Duxbury, in 1697. The Boston News Letter of December 31, 1730, notes a prayer at a funeral, and says: "Tho' a custom in the Country-Towns 'tis a Singular instance in this Place, but it's wish'd may prove a Leading Example to the General Practice of so Christian and Decent a Custom." Whitefield wrote disparagingly of the custom of not speaking at the grave.
We see Judge Sewall mastering his grief at his mother's burial, delaying for a few moments the filling of the grave, and speaking some very proper words of eulogy "with passion and tears." He jealously notes, however, when the Episcopal burial service is given in Boston, saying: "The Office for the dead is a Lying bad office, makes no difference between the precious and the Vile."
There were, as a rule, two sets of bearers appointed under-bearers, usually young men, who carried the coffin on a bier; and pall-bearers, men of age, dignity, or consanguinity, who held the corners of the pall which was spread over the coffin and hung down over the heads and bodies of the under-bearers. As the coffin was sometimes carried for a long distance, there were frequently appointed a double set of under-bearers, to share the burden. I have been told that mort-stones were set by the wayside in some towns, upon which the bearers could rest the heavy coffin for a short time on their way to the burial-place but I find no record or proof of this statement. The pall, or bier-cloth, or mort-cloth, as it was called, was usually bought and owned by the town, and was of heavy purple, or black broadcloth, or velvet. It often was kept with the bier in the porch of the meeting-house; but in some communities the bier, a simple shelf or table of wood on four legs about a foot and a half long, was placed over the freshly filled-in grave and left sombrely waiting till it was needed to carry another coffin to the burial-place. In many towns there were no gravediggers; sympathizing friends made the simple coffin and dug the grave.
In Londonderry, N. H., and neighboring towns that had been settled by Scotch-Irish planters, the announcement of a death was a signal for cessation of daily work throughout the neighborhood. Kindly assistance was at once given at the house of mourning. Women flocked to do the household work and to prepare the funeral feast. Men brought gifts of food, or household necessities, and rendered all the advice and help that was needed. A gathering was held the night before the funeral, which in feasting and drinking partook somewhat of the nature of an Irish wake. Much New England rum was consumed at this gathering, and also before the procession to the grave, and after the interment the whole party returned to the house for an "arval," and drank again. The funeral rum-bill was often an embarrassing and hampering expense to a bereaved family for years.
This liberal serving of intoxicating liquor at a funeral was not peculiar to these New Hampshire towns, nor to the Scotch-Irish, but prevailed in every settlement in the colonies until the temperance-awakening days of this century. Throughout New England bills for funeral baked meats were large in items of rum, cider, whiskey, lemons, sugar, spices.
To show how universally liquor was served to all who had to do with a funeral, let me give the bill for the mortuary expenses of David Porter, of Hartford, who was drowned in 1678.
"By a pint of liquor for those who dived for him.................... 1s.
By a quart of liquor for those who bro't him home................ 2s.
By two quarts of wine & 1 gallon of cyder to jury
of inquest ........................................................................ 5s.
By 8 gallons & 3 qts. wine for funeral................................. £1 15s.
By Barrel cyder for funeral ............................................... 16s.
1 coffin............................................................................ 12s.
Windeing sheet ......................................................................18s."
Even town paupers had two or three gallons of rum or a barrel of cider given by the town to serve as speeding libations at their unmourned funerals. The liquor at the funeral of a minister was usually paid for by the church or town often interchangeable terms for the same body. The parish frequently gave, also, as in the case of the death of Rev. Job Strong, of Portsmouth, in 1751, "the widow of our deceased pasture a full suit of mourning."
A careful, and above all an experienced committee was appointed to superintend the mixing of the funeral grog or punch, and to attend to the liberal and frequent dispensing thereof.
Hawthorne was so impressed with the enjoyable reunion New Englanders found in funerals that he wrote of them:
"They were the only class of scenes, so far as my investigation has taught me, in which our ancestors were wont to steep their tough old hearts in wine and strong drink and indulge in an outbreak of grisly jollity.
Look back through all the social customs of New England in the first century of her existence and read all her traits of character, and find one occasion other than a funeral feast where jollity was sanctioned by universal practice. . . . Well, old friends! Pass on with your burden of mortality and lay it in the tomb with jolly hearts. People should be permitted to enjoy themselves in their own fashion; every man to his taste but New England must have been a dismal abode for the man of pleasure when the only boon-companion was Death."
This picture has been given by Sargent of country funerals in the days of his youth:
"When I was a boy, and was at an academy in the country, everybody went to everybody's funeral in the village. The population was small, funerals rare; the preceptor's absence would have excited remark, and the boys were dismissed for the funeral. A table with liquors was always provided. Every one, as he entered, took off his hat with his left band, smoothed down his hair with his right, walked up to the coffin, gazed upon the corpse, made a crooked face, passed on to the table, took a glass of his favorite liquor, went forth upon the plat before the house and talked politics, or of the new road, or compared crops, or swapped heifers or horses until it was time to lift. A clergyman told me that when settled at Concord, N H , he officiated at the funeral of a little boy. The body was borne in a chaise, and six little nominal pallbearers, the oldest not thirteen, walked by the side of the vehicle. Before they left the house a sort of master of ceremonies took them to the table and mixed a tumbler of gin, water, and sugar for each."
It was a hard struggle against established customs and ideas of hospitality, and even of health, when the use of liquor at funerals was abolished. Old people sadly deplored the present and regretted the past. One worthy old gentleman said, with much bitterness: "Temperance has done for funerals."
As soon as the larger cities began to accrue wealth, the parentations of men and women of high station were celebrated with much pomp and dignity, if not with religious exercises. Volleys were fired over the freshly made grave even of a woman. A barrel and a half of powder was consumed to do proper honor to Winthrop, the chief founder of Massachusetts. At the funeral of Deputy-Governor Francis Willoughby eleven companies of militia were in attendance, and "with the doleful noise of trumpets and drums, in their mourning posture, three thundering volleys of shot were discharged, answered with the loud roarings of great guns rending the heavens with noise at the loss of so great a man." When Governor Leverett died, in 1679, the bearers carried banners. The principal men of the town bore the armor of the deceased, from helmet to spur, and the Governor's horse was led with banners. The funeral-recording Sewall has left us many a picture of the pomp of burial. Colonel Samuel Shrimpton was buried "with Arms" in 1697, "Ten Companies, No Herse nor Trumpet but a horse Led. Mourning Coach also & Horses in Mourning, Scutcheons on their sides and Deaths Heads on their foreheads." Fancy those coach-horses with gloomy death's-heads on their foreheads. At the funeral of Lady Andros, which was held in church, six "mourning women" sat in front of the draped pulpit, and the hearse was drawn by six horses. This English fashion of paid mourners was not common among sincere New Englanders; Lady Andros was a Church of England woman, not a Puritan. The cloth from the pulpit was usually given, after the burial, to the minister. In 1736 the Boston News Letter tells of the pulpit and the pew of the deceased being richly draped and adorned with escutcheons at a funeral. Thus were New England men, to quote Sir Thomas Browne, "splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave."
Many local customs prevailed. In Hartford and neighboring towns all ornaments, mirrors, and pictures were muffled with napkins and cloths at the time of the funerals, and sometimes the window-shutters were kept closed in the front of the house and tied together with black for a year, as was the fashion in Philadelphia.
Hawthorne tells us that at the death of Sir William Pepperell the entire house was hung with black, and all the family portraits were covered with black crape.
The order of procession to the grave was a matter of much etiquette. High respect and equally deep slights might be rendered to mourners in the place assigned. Usually some magistrate or person of dignity walked with the widow. Judge Sewall often speaks of "leading the widow in a mourning cloak."
One great expense of a funeral was the gloves. In some communities these were sent as an approved and elegant form of invitation to relatives and friends and dignitaries, whose presence was desired. Occasionally, a printed "invitation to follow the corps" was also sent. One for the funeral of Sir William Phipps is still in existence a fantastically gloomy document. In the case of a funeral of any person prominent in State, Church, or society, vast numbers of gloves were disbursed; "none of 'em of any figure but what had gloves sent to 'em." At the funeral of the wife of Governor Belcher, in 1736, over one thousand pairs of gloves were given away; at the funeral of Andrew Faneuil three thousand pairs; the number frequently ran up to several hundred. Different qualities of gloves were presented at the same funeral to persons of different social circles, or of varied degrees of consanguinity or acquaintance. Frequently the orders for these vales were given in wills. As early as 1633 Samuel Faller, of Plymouth, directed in his will that his sister was to have gloves worth twelve shillings; Governor Winthrop and his children each "a paire of gloves of five shilling;" while plebeian Rebecca Prime had to be contented with a cheap pair worth two shillings and sixpence. The under-bearers who carried the coffin were usually given different and cheaper gloves from the pallbearers. We find seven pairs of gloves given at a pauper's funeral, and not under the head of "Extrodny Chearges" either.
Of course the minister was always given gloves. They were showered on him at weddings, christenings, funerals. Andrew Eliot, of the North Church, in Boston, kept a record of the gloves and rings which he received; and, incredible as it may seem, in thirty-two years he was given two thousand nine hundred and forty pairs of gloves. Though he had eleven children, he and his family could scarcely wear them all, so he sold them through kindly Boston milliners, and kept a careful account of the transaction, of the lamb's-wool gloves, the kid gloves, the long gloves which were probably Madam Eliot's. He received between six and seven hundred dollars for the gloves, and a goodly sum also for funeral rings.
Various kinds of gloves are specified as suitable for mourning; for instance, in the Boston Independent Advertiser in 1749, "Black Shammy Gloves and White Glazed Lambs Wool Gloves suitable for Funerals." White gloves were as often given as black, and purple gloves also. Good specimens of old mourning gloves have been preserved in the cabinets of the Worcester Society of Antiquity.
At the funeral of Thomas Thornhill "17 pair of White Gloves at £1 15s. 6d., 3 1/2 yard Corle for Serfs £3 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 £20,000 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 & 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. much 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
She died at lasts 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.