Subject: OLD FUNERAL CUSTOMS
Source: Groton Historical Series by Dr. Samuel A. Green Vol III, 1893p.123
In the early days of our colonial history burials were conducted with severe simplicity. A body was taken from the house to the grave and interred without ceremony; and no prayer was made or other religious service held. Our pious forefathers were opposed to all ecclesiastical rites and any custom that reminded them of the English church, met with their stern dissapproval.
Funeral prayers in New England were first made in the smaller towns before they were in the larger places. Their introduction into Boston was of so uncommon occurrence that it caused some comment in a newspaper, as the following extract from "The Boston Weekly News Letter," December 31, 1730, will show:
"Yesterday were Buried here the Remains of that truly honourable & Devout Gentlewoman, Mrs. Sarah Byfield, amidst the affectionate Respects & Lamentations of a numerous Concourse. Before carrying out the Corpse, a Funeral Prayer was made, by one of the Pastors of the Old Church, to whose Communion she belonged: Which tho' a Custom in the country towns, is a singular Instance in this place, but it's wish'd may prove a leading Example to the general Practice of so christian & decent a Custom."
After a funeral the coffin was carried upon a bier to the place of interment by pallbearers who were from time to time relieved by others walking at their side. The bearers usually were kinsfolk or intimate friends of the deceased; and they were followed by the mourners and neighbors who walked two by two. After the burial the bier was left standing over the grave ready for use when occasion should again require. Hearses were first introduced into Boston about 1796 and into Groton (MA) a few years later. In the warrant for the Groton town meeting on April 4, 1803 Article No. 7 was "To see if the town will provide a hearse for the town's use and give such directions about the same as they shall think fit."
In the Proceedings of that meeting, after Article No. 7 it is recorded: "Voted and chose James Brazer, Esq, Jacob L. Parker, and Joseph Sawtell 3d, a Committee and directed them to provide a decent hearse at the town's expense.
A hearse was bought under the vote of April 4, 1803 but there was no shelter provided for it; and that five years later steps were taken for its proper housing. During this interval it may have been kept in some private barn or shed. During the author's childhood the hearse was sheltered at one end of the Gun-House situated on the northeast corner of the Burying Ground. Presumably this hearse was made in Groton and it lasted nearly forty years.
At a town meeting held April 4, 1842 it was voted to direct the Selectmen to procure a new Hearse and harness with discretionary power as to form and cost. The carriage was duly bought and first used at the funeral of the Rev. George W. Wells who died March 17, 1843. This hearse remained in use until the summer of 1870 when another was pro- vided under authority of the vote on Mar 2, 1868:
"that the Selectmen of the Town be instructed to procure a suitable Hearse for the centre of the Town." The new one was bought from Albert Tolman and Company of Worcester at a cost of $427.50 and the freight for the same by railroad was $7.00.
Transcribed by Janice Farnsworth
Used with permission by Janice Farnsworth