New England

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The Chesapeake region and New England region present a stark contrast in the experience of death during the colonial period. While only a minority of

early Virginians lived to their 45th year, New Englanders who lived to see adolescence commonly survived into their 70s.

One of the primary reasons was that New England’s colder climate and overall elevated topography discouraged the rampant spread of disease so

common in marshier areas. While parts of New England did breed disease, these areas were a smaller percentage of the Northern colonies; as in the

South, some wealthy residents in these vicinities were able to spent time in healthier places, such as along the coast, during the heat of summer.

The Southerners’ stoic resignation in the face of death also was vastly different from the New England fascination with death. The Calvinist belief in

predestination made Puritan Congregationalists insecure about the state of their souls and eternal destination. They brooded over their own mortality and

the great question posed by the grave’s yawning chasm: “Am I one of God’s elect?”

Rather than shelter their young from death, parents forced even small children to face death squarely in the face, to look into open graves, and to

meditate on Bible passages that prescribed death as the lot of all humanity. Describing the outlook of New Englanders, Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote of

the “unutterable … melancholy, which regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority, an inconceivable

misfortune.”

New England funerary sculpture featured grim reminders of these sobering facts in the forms of grinning death’s heads. In the face of inevitable death and

probable damnation, the best that devout New Englanders could do was to use these facts to redouble their efforts at service to God, in hopes of the

unlikely redemption of their souls.

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