All Must Die: 18th Century

Image from our past exhibit "Facing the King of Terrors" with reproduction 18th century mourning gown and coffin

Image from our past exhibit "Facing the King of Terrors" with reproduction 18th century mourning gown and coffin

“the one shall be taken and the other left & that this may not be for the worst but for the better.”


The death of a loved one was a reminder to the living that death could come at anytime and preparing ones self in the face of God was of utmost importance. If the deceased had died a good death by being properly at peace with the lord, then their death should be viewed as releasing them to a better place. If they had died a bad death, such as suicide, or had lived an unrepentant life, then their passing was a reminder of the need to prepare.


“It was the fashion then to have cake at funerals, & spiced wine, and cold wine, and pipes and tabacco … That custom after a while went out of fashion.”

                                                                                                Harriet Mumford Paige


Dutch funerals were known in the 18th century for their extravagance. For Deborah Sanders’ funeral in 1786, 600 cakes were baked and thirty-one gallons of rum were purchased to be spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Gifts were given to pallbearers and sometimes to guests. These mementos could include gloves, gold rings, and silver cups and spoons.


The Dutch were not alone in their funeral excesses. Viewing luxury as a source of corruption, in 1774 the First Continental Congress discouraged the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals and recommended the wearing of ribbons and armbands instead of mourning dress.


George Washington’s death in 1799 was a devastating blow to the new republic. They had lost not only their first president but also the very symbol of the revolution. For the first time, Americans mourned as a nation for their loss. Washington’s death came at the beginning of a change in mourning practices and attitudes, and to an extent helped speed it up. Though it would not be until the mid-19th century that deep mourning would be accepted and even expected, more explicit mourning was coming into practice. Even views toward death were beginning to change. William Pitt Beers gave a local eulogy for Washington in which he reminded everyone that, like Washington, we must all eventually pay our debts in the tomb. Yet Beers was not a minister reminding the living to prepare for God’s judgment, he was a local lawyer who focused on how Washington had live instead of how he had died.

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