Death in New England

The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change

by David E. Stannard
Oxford University Press, 236 pp., $11.95

In a previous article I examined the survey of death in Europe over the past thousand years by Philippe Ariès in his new book L’Homme devant la mort, and I pointed out the problems involved in applying a unified model to so many national cultures across so many centuries. Professor Stannard has gone about his business in quite a different way taking a single, clearly defined provincial culture, that of the Puritans of New England, and looking at changes in their attitude toward death over a limited period of 300 years from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Working within this much narrower perspective, he can be much more precise and convincing in his analysis, and in doing so he brings valuable support to M. Ariès’s general scheme.

The central beliefs of the seventeenth century Puritans were the Calling, the obligation to be actively engaged in this world; Predestination, the idea that salvation of the soul is preordained by God and not a reward for good works, and that only a very few are destined to be saved; and Millenarianism a belief that Christ’s second coming is imminent, a prospect which tempered the pessimistic forecast of Predestination.

To the Puritans death was a fearful and uncertain ordeal. They died hard, loaded with guilt, with doubts about salvation and certain only about the awful reality of the torments of Hell. Few cultures have been more afraid of death, and have provided fewer means of assauging those fears. Puritans did not believe in Purgatory, or in the possibillty that the prayers or rituals performed by the living could aid the dead. Consequently, funerary rites were reduced to a minimum, funeral sermons were occasions for theological encouragement of the living rather than individualized eulogies of the dead, and grave monuments were no more than plain headstones, in conformity with Puritan hostility to graven images, Simplicity and anonymity were the rule.

But this could not, and did not, last. Belief in Predestination eventually resulted in anomic and cognitive dissonance—an intolerable tension between the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and the compulsion to do good works as the only means of convincing oneself that one is among the Saved. Professor Stannard’s not altogether original central argument is that this basic internal contradiction in Puritan ideology was in the long run unendurable and led in the eighteenth century to a liberalization of belief in order to relieve the tension. As New England society became more complex, more dense, and more wealthy, social distinctions reasserted themselves in the form of elaborate funerals for the elite, accompained by embalming of the corpse to allow the family time to plan the ceremony and assemble the guests and food. The rise of individualism caused funeral sermons to turn into personal eulogies, and tombstones to become more iconographically elaborate. It is astonishing to find that one or two of them were openly erotic in a highly stylized way, strangely reminiscent of Picasso’s nudes …

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