"A Decent External Sorrow": Death, Mourning, and the American Revolution

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This dissertation argues that the study of eighteenth-century deathways provide important perspectives on the lives and experiences of those who lived through the colonial era, the Imperial Crisis, the American Revolution, and the early national period. Beginning with a broad survey of funereal culture in colonial America, it shows that individuals used their mourning customs to make public and private statements about a variety of topics ranging from proper social relationships to intimate matters of religious conviction and personal feelings. It also demonstrates that, as Americans faced the numerous challenges and changes of the eighteenth century, they adapted their funeral customs to suit new circumstances and worldviews. Thus, as tensions arose between Great Britain and its North American colonies over issues of Parliamentary policy, American protestors expressed their discontent by staging mock funerals and executions of government officials. At the same time, they boycotted imported mourning accessories in an attempt, not only to put economic pressure on Britain, but also to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice public status and private comfort to preserve colonial liberties. When American resistance to British rule broke out into armed conflict, wartime disruptions to burial customs required further changes and new understandings of funeral rites. By both tradition and official regulations, differences in military rank usually served as the most important consideration in soldiers’ funerals. However, strict separation between officers and the rank-and-file, and sometimes even broader conventions of “decent” burials, were often subject to the vagaries of war. When casualties were high, or when armies had to move quickly, the disposal of the dead took second place to the imperatives of military strategy. Similarly, the crowded and unsanitary conditions of hospitals and wartime prisons often led to perfunctory or even indecent interments as burial parties struggled to deal with high mortality rates and the callousness of enemy captors. These significant departures from traditional funeral rites often distressed soldiers as they witnessed the deaths of their friends, neighbors, and comrades. Many tried to provide whatever final respects they could to the fallen, even as official rhetoric encouraged them to believe that the approbation of God and country would serve as ample reward for patriots’ sacrifice. In the years after the war, funereal culture became one arena in which Americans attempted to work out the meaning of the ideals that had underpinned the War for Independence. As many began to look forward to the return of traditional mourning practices, the growth of religious freedom and promises of liberty and natural equality encouraged individuals to use their funeral customs to communicate new denominational alliances and to challenge older ideas about social hierarchies. These changes encouraged churches to adapt their approach to the final services that they offered, prompted merchants to return to offering a wide array of mourning accessories, and encouraged the growth of the undertaking profession in America. At the same time, the fallen soldiers of the Revolution, as well as those who survived the conflict, presented special challenges as the nation attempted to grapple with the legacies of the war. Ultimately, the task of finally reconciling with the dead of the American Revolution would fall to later generations as they defined their own relationship to the nation’s founding conflict.