Season 1, Episode 1: Understanding Death in Early America

Is death an adversary or a friend? This week on Historia Mortis, Dr. Kimberly Sherman takes us on a jaunt through early American history as we explore the changing attitudes toward death from the seventeenth century to the antebellum era. 


[Intro Music]
[Kimberly Sherman:] Hi everyone and welcome to the very first episode of Historia Mortis. I’m your host, Kimberly Sherman, and this season we will be exploring a variety of topics related to the history of death and deathways in early America. Today we are going to trace changing attitudes toward death from roughly to seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries in America. 

First, I’d like to share with you how this whole idea became a podcast. Much of my own research as a historian focuses on the history of the family in early America, with an emphasis on North Carolina. As I worked on my PhD I studied Scottish family networks and read loads of their correspondence to friends and family in North Carolina and around the Atlantic world. These letters revealed a concern for family members, of course influenced by social norms of the day, but in the South this was heightened by the near-constant threat of tropical disease which could have fatal consequences. 

My interest in how these early American families dealt with the ever-present specter of death through writing, mourning, and burial practices led me to research at the Winterthur Museum and Library in 2019 where I began studying the material culture of early American deathways (or attitudes toward death that include rituals and customs surrounding death, burial, and mourning) and the seeds were planted for this podcast.

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[KS:] In 1778, a series of malarial fevers attacked residents near Brunswicktown on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. William Hooper wrote of the affair, exclaiming: 
“Oh! That Heaven had cast the common lot of three or four families with mine in the backcountry, or somewhere health is not so dreadfully capricious as it is along the sea coast. In fact, the Scripture expression was never more truly verified than in this part of Carolina in the summer and fall. We literally die daily.”
Hooper was not alone in this feeling. Early Americans looked death in the face on the regular and they wrote about it often. It’s even more fascinating that Americans eventually became obsessed with death in the nineteenth century, when considering that discussions of death are so taboo in America today.

Mortician, writer, and death positive advocate Caitlin Doughty writes in her memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: “Looking mortality in the eye is no easy feat. To avoid the exercise we choose to stay blindfolded, in the dark as to the realities of death and dying. But ignorance is not bliss, only a deeper kind of terror. We can do our best to push death to the margins, keeping corpses behind stainless-steel doors and tucking the sick and dying in hospital rooms. So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not. We are all going to die and we know it.”

Late Medieval Europe
The pioneering historian of the family Phillipe Aries wrote that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans viewed death as a transgression against the living. A type of eroticism was attached to the idea of death as “Death raped the living.” Death became a break with life.

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation rendered many beliefs surrounding death to be null and void. With the break with Catholicism, Protestant Europeans no longer adhered to the practices of venerating saints or praying for the dead in purgatory, but they still remained interested in maintaining their relationships with the dead.

Puritan New England in the Seventeenth Century
Historians like James J. Farrell have argued that the American perception of death was most clearly defined in Puritan New England. Puritan beliefs about death were part of their cosmology — or how they viewed the universe and their role within it. It wasn’t necessarily religious, but it when the sacred is mixed in, a cosmology becomes religion. Religious cosmologies that emerged in early America might deal with death head on, even more so than a secular worldview.

Reformed Tradition that came out of Protestant Reformation that argued since “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” that everyone deserves death and divine punishment. Faith might bring hope, but not security. This heavily influenced New England Puritans who brought Reformed Theology with them to America. Death was part of God’s providential plan as a response to original sin and to accept that God had the right to call an individual into death and eternal life. So the Puritans didn’t see it completely as punishment, but something to be accepted as part of God’s plan. Judge Samuel Sewall, who is most notorious for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, wrote about this in his diary often. The Puritan Trinitarian belief in the divine nature of Christ and the atonement brought by his death, however, helped to “balance out” the belief in death as a punishment for sin. The afterlife, what happens after death, could, however, include the fires of hell. At the same time, there was the hope of heaven. “For Sewall and for many early American colonists,” writes Farrell, “death appeared as a friendly enemy and a fearful friend.”

Because death could occur when least expected, Puritans made themselves alert and ready to the possibilities of death. In such cases, Puritans’ focus on being prepared for death made the deathbed experience even more important than the burial and mourning of a loved one. “Puritan parents compelled their youngsters to stare death in the face.”

Puritan funerals were somber affairs. They often lacked a sermon, given the fear that a minister’s words might encourage the “Papist” belief in praying for the souls of the dead. Instead, funeral elegies were given by friends and family that honored the deceased, using their lives as a didactic for instruction in good character and godly virtues. Funeral poetry allowed seventeenth-century New Englanders to take on either the voice of the dead or the mourner in sometimes gendered, but often elaborate, performances. 

The Enlightened Eighteenth Century
In the dawning of the eighteenth century, commercialization and mercantile activity in the British American colonies helped revolutionize death customs. So too did the Enlightenment — the intellectual movement that had already swept across Europe and was making its way across the Atlantic. The Enlightenment upended Reformed Tradition and put God in the background of the cosmologies as he watched humanity seek to understand how the universe worked, and it’s natural laws. In doing so, it removed some of the mystery and also added a sense of optimism to views of history.

Those of the Age of Reason, as the Enlightenment is often called, did not dwell on the possibilities or uncertainties of death. By removing the religious cosmologies surrounding death, the Enlightenment actually tempered the sting of death. Death was natural, to be approached with stoicism, self-reliance, and acceptance. With less emphasis on a doctrine of depravity, people need not fear death and damnation. Instead, people worried more about what the judgement future generations might offer than the judgement of God. 

Enlightenment philosophy first became prevalent among Unitarians who were emerging in eighteenth-century Boston. They emphasized the benevolence of God and the Enlightenment philosophy of the possibility of perfecting humanity. They also rejected any literal formation of hell and damnation. By portraying God as personal and kind, and believing in the rationality of human life, Unitarian belief minimized the fear of condemnation. Death was not final, it was simply a transition.
Some, however, found Unitarianism too cold and rational, so the American mainstream tended toward the Romantic ideal that emerged in the late eighteenth century. This cultural shift allowed for widespread participation in a tradition steeped in emotion and intuition, that eventually morphed into American Evangelicalism.

From the perspective of the Romantics, God, or a Spiritual Presence, was in both nature and humanity. It was a rejection of what some called Deus in machina, or a mechanical deistic cosmology that had been so prominent during the Enlightenment. One vein of Romanticism depicted “death . . . swallowed up in life” — in other words, that the natural world feeds on the decay of death. People were encouraged to think of death as a natural part of life, a friendly visitor. Just like the changing of the seasons, death became easier to accept — “the final sign of human correspondence with the universe.” Another group of Romantics characterized death as the prelude to the sublime that heightened emotions and feeling. In doing so, they recounted the horrors of death in such a manner as to evoke fear (which they considered the strongest of all human emotions). Death was an adversary to be overcome, but such a struggle was futile. Such beliefs also increased the grief felt by those left behind.

In the late eighteenth century, burials were taken out of the hands of the church and privatized. This was partially related to public health concerns, but it also to allow for the veneration of the dead like never before. The Romantic era also differentiated itself from what many considered the elitism of the Enlightenment and Unitarianism. They combined reason with intuition and imagination, opening the movement up to more people. It is not coincidence either that the movement occurred alongside a new era of American individualism, the expansion of the franchise, and a decline of social deference as democracy was on the rise. 

The Cult of Death in the Nineteenth Century
The Evangelical revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s paved the way for new attitudes toward death in the Victorian era. While the rhetoric of the era juxtaposed the spirit of Christianity against the competitive spirit of individualism in the nineteenth century, the movement accommodated itself to the rise of capitalism. The Great Awakening placed Scripture, a conversion experience, and the life of the Christian witness at its center. They took hold of a Biblical view of death, believing “that God intervened directly with death to chastise his sinful children and to remind survivors of their own mortality.” They encouraged people to prepare for death, both through assurance of salvation, as well as frequent meditation on death and grief, and to resist the spirit of the world (which was in direct opposition to the spirit of the gospel), and cultivate piety. Much of this was influenced by the Presbyterians who encouraged their ministers to visit the sick and instruct them in the scriptures. One 1842 manual for ministers claimed that sickness was “directed and sent by a wise and holy God, either for correction of sin, for the trial of grace, for improvement in religion, or for other important ends.” The possibility of death might spur people on to action regarding their faith, resulting in an emphasis on human agency.

This, however, lead to some anxiety over death. Some historians have pointed to this anxiety and the emergence of a new intimacy in domestic family life as the root of the vast amount of writing on the death of children in the nineteenth century. The human free will to choose salvation might help adults overcome their fears of death, but what about those who were not old enough for moral accountability? 
It seems that by the Victorian era, Americans drew on a number of cosmologies and religious experiences to eclectically create their own responses to death, as well as looking to scientific naturalism and religious liberalism. Religion did not cause people of the evangelical era to welcome death, but faith acted more as a “stabilizer” in response to it. It was the mourners themselves took on a new, more active role in death — what Phillipe Aries calls an “exaggeration of mourning.”

More recently, historian Erik R. Seeman has proposed that a “cult of the dead” was founded in antebellum America. This “cult of the dead” was a female-driven cultural phenomenon that drew on mainstream Protestantism and was held in tension with it. Seeman identifies its five major tenets: First, people devoted themselves to the care of the corpses of the dead. Second, that the souls of the deceased would transform into Angels. Third, that they returned to earth to guard the living. Fourth, that graveyards were the haven of the souls of the dead. Finally, that prayers to the dead were a legitimate form of communication. This resulted in a dramatic cultural era in which a plethora of material culture, from embroidery and portraiture, to hair work and mourning jewelry, arose to serve as monuments to the departed. Much of this we will be exploring in future episodes.

One historian suggests that “Between 1830 and 1920 American conceptions of death changed in a process which an English author of 1899 called ‘The Dying of Death.’ By this phrase he meant not ‘the annihilation of continuous existence here and hereafter,’ but ‘the practical disappearance of the thought of death as an influence bearing upon practical life,’ not the banishment of biological death, but the cultural circumvention of dread of death.”

Thanks for joining us this week on Historia Mortis. Please subscribe and review our podcast on your favorite platform — Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and more — so that more listeners can find us. To keep up with all the latest on Historia Mortis, visit us at and give us a follow on instagram @historiamortis.

As E. E. Cummings said, “Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.” So until next time, friends, get busy living!

Recommended Reading:

Caitlyn Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And other lessons from the crematory (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014)

Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes toward DEATH: From the Middle Ages to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

James J. Farrell, Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830-1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980).

David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

Erik R. Seeman, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

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