|Horsham Friends Meeting Burying Ground – Horsham, Pennsylvania|
Teach me the measure of my days, Thou Maker of my frame;
I would survey life's narrow space, and learn how frail I am.
—Isaac Watts, "Teach Me the Measure of My Days"
Now colonial Friends (Quakers) neither sang nor participated in any type of music, but the words from this hymn played in my mind as I sat down to write this post. Friends may not have sung these words, but they certainly believed them. As a follow-up to my August 2016 post on marriage among Friends during colonial times, today I'm going to look at another ceremony—the funeral, or “memorial service,” as Friends call it.
Colonial Friends were, for the most part, a plain and simple people. They lived lives rife with modesty and practicality, and when death came, it was treated with the same pragmatism. Being followers of Christ, they believed that death was not an end but a beginning, and their funerals were considered celebrations of life. Unlike much of society during this period in history, Friends who had lost loved ones did not participate in the wearing of black clothing and had no prescribed mourning period.
When a Friend died, a memorial service was held, usually at the meeting house he or she attended. (In modern times, Friends funerals are often explained at the beginning of the service, as some attendees may not be familiar with Quaker silent worship. Perhaps this was common in colonial times as well if there were non-Quaker attendees.) Then the service would commence with the most beloved sound of Friends: silence.
Friends would sit in silence as they listened for the “Inner Light” (the voice of God within). If they felt led to speak about the deceased, they would stand and say their piece—often a testimony about his or her good character or an inspiring or funny anecdote about the person. Time would be given for all attendees to speak, should they wish to, then the elders would end the service by standing and shaking hands. In most cases, there was no viewing in the meeting house and no eulogy was given.
|Gravestone of Peter Lukens (my 9th-great-grandfather)|
Quaker burials were equally as simple. In fact, many Friends during colonial times were buried without gravestones, which were thought by some to be prideful. Other graves were graced with only a small natural stone (usually a fieldstone in southeastern Pennsylvania) or a crescent-shaped gravestone with merely the deceased’s initials or the initials and a year of death. Friends could be buried in private cemeteries on family land or in the cemetery kept by their meeting house. (As an aside, Friends often provided burial plots for those who were prohibited from being buried in other cemeteries or could not afford burial. For this reason, many Friends cemeteries include the graves of slaves, Indians, free blacks, and destitute non-Quakers.) Those buried in the meeting house cemetery were not buried in family sections, but usually in the next available plot.
Plain and simple in life, and plain and simple in death. And for good reason: They knew their treasures lay in heaven.