Death and Dying of colonial America

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Death in epidemic proportions was an ever-present reality for the residents of colonial America. Without significant medical and mortuary institutions to

shelter them from the effects of the grim reaper, early Americans were forced to confront death and its aftermath head-on, with fewer pretensions and

illusions than people living in modern industrialized societies.

Since mortality rates were significantly higher than in contemporary America, the frequency with which one might have to face the death of a close

relative was much greater. In the early years of settlement, particularly in the South, rare was the individual who lived to adulthood without losing one or

both parents. Infant mortality rates were staggering; many never lived past their first year. Even in the New England colonies, where death rates were

lowest, one in four children died before reaching adolescence, and households typically lost three children out of the average nine born to Puritan couples.

In fact, colonial mortality statistics, high as they were, greatly underestimate the actual frequency of death. These calculations did not include children

under a year of age, those stricken down during that portion of life when one is most vulnerable and susceptible to disease.

Coping with Death

The ways in which colonial communities dealt with and memorialized death, burial, and grieving were largely determined by their cultural and religious

backgrounds. Residents of all the British and European colonies, including Africans, as well as the Native American inhabitants of North America,

subscribed to a form of fatalism. All regarded man as being at the mercy of forces over which he had little control. Even in the eighteenth century, the

“Age of Reason,” popular fatalism held sway over the Enlightenment rationalism of colonial elites.

For European colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, death almost always occurred in the home, in the midst of one’s family. Except in

urban settings, professional doctors were rare, especially in the earlier century. Medical and mortuary establishments, both of which play a significant role

in removing the dying process from the ordinary experience of people today, did not exist. Relatives and neighbors supervised the care of the dying and

the interment of the physical remains after death. In backcountry settlements or in isolated homesteads in the South, families had to be self-reliant in

these mournful duties. Where close communities thrived, as in Puritan New England, neighbors and clergy played a more important role.

During the American colonial period, cultural attitudes toward death in the Western world were in a state of transition; Americans of European descent

took part in this change, albeit at a slower pace. Religious leaders, especially Protestants, began to place greater emphasis on the edifying and dramatic

aspects of the death scene. Christians could learn lessons from the ways in which both fellow believers and the unchurched faced death. Facing death

without fear and with a firm faith in God was considered a sign of the dying person’s sincere belief and served as an example to the survivors. Family

members gathered around the deathbed, often literally in a circle, to witness the event, lend support and comfort, and mark their own mortality.

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