With Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, its time to wow your family with some Pilgrim related morbid terminology. The first pilgrims from the Mayflower were Calvinists who believed in predestination. Therefore, rituals were unnecessary for burials since it had been pre-decided by the Puritan god whether the individual was going to heaven or not. The earliest graves were simple cut holes oriented east to west with wood markers. The Second Commandment prohibited the use of graven images, therefore elaborate funerals or headstones was considered a form of idolatry. However, a number of early pilgrim graves have been found with large stones on them, and increasing anxiety and tension led to funeral rituals. Here are some terms associated with the early American burials.
It is known that the first pilgrim cemeteries lacked any major official markers or contemporary memorials. This was due to the belief that an epitaph was unnecessary, and that to show any images upon stone or wood would be considered a sin. Eulogies were not given, and funeral processions were unnecessary. This was partially due to belief and partially to the dire circumstances that they faced. During winters digging the graves could be extremely difficult. Therefore, shallower graves were dug in this season. Shallow graves were also common when individuals died away from the community. These burials have large heavy stone placed over the grave, around the chest of the individual. The purpose of this stone was not to mark death during the winter or death away from the community. It held a more practical purpose.
Like the mortsafes from Scotland, the wolf stone was a practical object meant to prevent wolves from digging up the body and desecrating it. While the pilgrims didn’t believe in resurrection, they still didn’t want the remains of their relatives and friends to be eaten or disturbed. Wolves were extremely common when the settlers first arrived, and there were huge rewards offered for killing them. It wasn’t until the 18th century that this threat became neutralized and the wolf stone was no longer necessary. The stones were taken off the graves and would be used for buildings or other purposes (via Open the Word).
Warners and White Gloves:
In Pennsylvania, due to increasing insecurity but also free time to properly tend to the dead, led to an increase in the tradition of warners. Warners were groups of individuals who went from door to door alerting the living that someone had just died. Those who answered the door were given white gloves and two death cakes. The white gloves were a sign of death and rebirth. Traditionally worn by pallbearers, receiving a pair of white gloves meant that one was invited to serve as one for the deceased. They were meant to be the hands ushering the deceased to be reborn, but now they serve more to protect the coffin from being scratched and save the hands of the pallbearer (via Pilgrim Hall Museum).
Funeral cakes are a dense dry cake meant to be a memento of the dead. They were given as gifts by the warners and served as an invitation to the funeral. They could also be served at the funeral and be taken home by the mourners. This tradition isn’t limited to Early Americana, but extends from Middle Age Germanic and Central European traditions. The cookies or cakes were a way of ‘eating’ of the dead and absorbing their virtues. In the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain and Ireland it was more commonly salty bread that through its consumption would remove the sins of the deceased and place them in the living. As pilgrims became more settled, this type of practice became fairly common as a way of honoring and remembering the deceased (via Camden Co Museum).
Want to learn more about the first burials of the pilgrims? Check out last year’s thanksgiving post!
Finally, a quick thank you to all of my readers, twitter followers and supporters! I’m very grateful for the constant feedback, questions and discussion that occurs on this site. As I work on my dissertation, this site serves as a way for me to connect with the broader community and learn about the world outside of my dissertation’s region. This Thanksgiving, I am most grateful for you!