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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. 1 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 in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Professor Stannard is attracted by the late V. Gordon Childe’s hypothesis that funcrary practices and monumental art became more elaborate and more extravagant at time when a society is becoming more unstable. He is tempted to associate a revival of funerary pomp in eighteenth-century New England with the growing instability of colonial society as it was threatened by the Franco-Indian wars, and as the population pushed toward the natural frontiers of growth. This is an intriguing but historically almost wholly unsubstantiated hypothesis, and I believe he might have been better advised to leave it alone.

But his general argument is much more securely based. He agrees with Ariès(and me) in seeing a rise of the isolated affection-bonded nuclear family in the eighteenth century; and he believes that this isolation increased the stress on the bereaved by depriving them of community support at the same time that emotional attachment to the deceased increased. By the mid-eighteenth century New Englanders were romanticizing death. They now accepted it easily, in a burst of confidence in salvation, or at least in peace in the after-life. The overpowering seventeenth-century sense of fear of death and Hell had evaporated, and in consequence the grinning skulls on the tombstones gave way to winged cherubs’ heads. The cemetery was now described as a “dormitory.” Finally, in the twentieth century, there took place the familiar concealment of death, its dominance by medical technology, and its occurrence in isolation and drugged insensibility in hospital. These processes he sees as a response to the end of belief in an afterlife and a fear of the empty void to come.

On this last point one must enter a caveat, not about the facts, but the moral conclusions of Stannard and Aries that death today is more terrible than ever. Admittedly one is likely to die alone in the sterile ward of a hospital, surrounded by machines and tubes and machinelike attendants. Admittedly this isolation and loss of individual control deprive the dying of the challenge to put on a show, to make a “good death” before relatives, friends, and neighbors (which was the reason why Dr. Johnson objected so strongly to the abolition of public hangings). But how many ever achieved this ideal in practice? The poet Crabbe, who in his capacity as a country doctor had attended many deathbeds, had his doubts on this score. How many were so physically ravaged by pain or by disease that they were either beyond caring or a foul-smelling embarrassment to the onlookers? Is it better to die in agony or stupefied by painkillers? Is is better to face the certainty of annihilation or the possible torments of Hell? The current criticism of modern “medicalized” death seems to be based not only on a resentment of the tyranny of doctors but also on a good deal of false romanticism about a lost golden age of death in the bosom of the family. It is also based on a failure to appreciate that it is our greatly increased capacity to prolong life, not the ambitions of doctors, which has created the current situation. Moral indignation is entirely out of place in dealing with technological innovation which marches on with a life of its own.

Stannard explains the changes he has observed by the use of two main variables. The first is religion, apparently because he believes, along with Hobbes and Malinowski, that fear of things unknown, and particularly, of ghosts and life after death; is the ultimate cause of religious beliefs. The second is the relationship of the individual to the collectivity, especially as expressed in the family. The rise and then fall of belief in Original Sin, Predestination, and Hell, and the rise in affective individualism and romanticism within the family, are sufficient in themselves to explain with elegance and parsimony the changing attitudes toward death over three centuries in New England.

Although there are still many loose ends to be tidied up, and many problems and ambiguities still to be resolved, it is remarkable how well the two very different books by Stannard and Aries reinforce each other’s conclusions. As a result we can begin dimly to see a pattern emerging. The history of death is at last being formally linked to religious, family, and intellectual history, although it has still to be tied in to economic, social, technological, and medical history. In the last ten years historical demographers have proved statistically how recently and how dramatically the prospects of dying have changed, now that the expectation of life at birth has risen from about thirty to about seventy years, Historians of epidemiology have demonstrated the shattering effect of bubonic plague, syphilis, measles, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, influenza, etc. F. Lebrun, in his remarkable study of Anjou in the eighteenth century, has shown in vivid detail just what all this meant in human terms, how every aspect of human life and aspirations was governed by the ever-present fear of death.2

Ariès Stannard, and others have formulated a plausible and reasonably coherent account of the chronological stages in the evolution of attitudes toward death. The painstaking analysis of wills by Michel Vovelle and Pierre Chaunu3 and their students has demonstrated both the upsurge of baroque piety in late seventeenth-century France, focused particularly on Purgatory and masses for the dead, and it subsequent decline after 1740. Taken together, the works of these scholars add up to the most original and important historical advance of the 1970s. Moreover, if the authors are right in thinking that ideas about death provide a good indicator of the character of a whole civilization, then this new field of inquiry is central to the understanding of the evolution of Western man.

(This is the second of two articles.)

  1. 1

    NYR October 12, 1978.

  2. 2

    F. Lebrun, Les Hommes et la morl en Anjou (Paris, 1971).

  3. 3

    Michel Vovelle, Piété Buroque et DéChristianisation: les Attitudes devant la mort en Provence au XVIII slècle (Paris, 1973); Pierre Chaunu, Mourir à Paris (Paris, 1977).

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