Quaker Funerals

  [This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

By Thomas Clarkson (1806)

Quaker Meeting House


Funerals—Most nations have paid extravagant attention to their dead—The moderns follow their example—This extravagance, or the pageantry of funerals, discarded by the Quakers—Their reasons for it—Plainness of Quaker-funerals.  

If we look into the history of the world, we shall find, from whatever cause it has arisen, whether from any thing connected with our moral feelings, such as love, gratitude, or respect, or from vanity, or ostentation, that almost all nations, where individuals have been able to afford it, have incurred considerable expense in the interment of their dead. The Greeks were often very extravagant in their funerals.  Many persons, ornamented with garlands, followed the corpse, while others were employed in singing and dancing before it. At the funerals of the great, among the Romans, couches were carried, containing the waxen or other images of the family of the deceased, and hundreds joined in the procession. In our own times, we find a difference in the manner of furnishing or decorating funerals, though but little in the intention of making them objects of outward show. A bearer of plumes precedes the procession. The horses employed are dressed in trappings. The hearse follows ornamented with plumes of feathers, and gilded and silvered with gaudy escutcheons, or the armorial bearings of the progenitors of the deceased. A group of hired persons range themselves on each side of the hearse and attendant carriages, while others close the procession. These again are all of them clad in long cloaks, or furnished, in regular order, with scarves and hat-bands. Now all these outward appendages, which may be called the pageantry of funerals, the Quakers have discarded, from the time of their institution, in the practice of the burial of their dead.

The Quakers are of opinion, that funeral processions should be made, if any thing is to be made of them, to excite serious reflections, and to produce lessons of morality in those who see them. This they conceive to be best done by depriving the dead body of all ornaments and outward honors. For, stripped in this manner, they conceive it to approach the nearest to its native worthlessness or dust. Such funerals, therefore, may excite in the spectator a deep sense of the low and debased condition of man. And his feelings will be pure on the occasion, because they will be unmixed with the consideration of the artificial distinctions of human life. The spectator too will be more likely, if he sees all go undistinguished to the grave, to deduce for himself the moral lesson, that there is no true elevation of one above another, only as men follow the practical duties of virtue and religion. But what serious reflections, or what lessons of morality, on the other hand, do the funerals of the world produce, if accompanied with pomp and splendor? To those who have sober and serious minds, they produce a kind of pity, that is mingled with disgust. In those of a ludicrous turn, they provoke ludicrous ideas, when they see a dead body attended with such extravagant parade. To the vulgar and the ignorant no one useful lesson is given. Their senses are all absorbed in the show; and the thoughts of the worthlessness of man, as well as of death and the grave, which ought naturally to suggest themselves on such occasions, are swallowed up in the grandeur and pageantry of the procession.  Funerals, therefore, of this kind, are calculated to throw honor upon riches, abstractedly of moral merit; to make the creature of as much importance when dead as when alive; to lessen the humility of man; and to destroy, of course, the moral and religious feelings that should arise upon such occasions. Add to which, that such a conduct among Christians must be peculiarly improper; for the Christian dispensation teaches man, that he is “to work out his salvation with fear and trembling.” It seems inconsistent, therefore, to accompany with all the outward signs of honor and greatness the body of a poor wretch, who has had this difficult and awful task to perform, and who is on his last earthly journey, previously to his appearance before the tribunal of the Almighty to be judged for the deeds which he has committed in the flesh.

Actuated by such sentiments as these, the Quakers have discarded all parade at their funerals. When they die, they are buried in a manner singularly plain. The corpse is deposited in a plain coffin. When carried to the meeting-house or grave-yard, it is attended by relations and friends. These have nothing different at this time in their external garments from their ordinary dress. Neither man nor horse is appareled for the purpose. All pomp and parade, however rich the deceased may have been, are banished from their funeral processions. The corpse, at length, arrives at the meeting-house. It is suffered to remain there in the sight of the spectators. The congregation then sit in silence, as at a meeting for worship. If any one feels himself induced to speak, he delivers himself accordingly; if not, no other rite is used at this time. In process of time the coffin is taken out of the meeting-house, and carried to the grave. Many of the acquaintances of the deceased, both Quakers and others, follow it. It is at length placed by the side of the grave. A solemn, silent pause, immediately takes place. It is then interred. Another shorter pause then generally follows. These pauses are made, that the “spectators may be more deeply touched with a sense of their approaching exit, and their future state.” If a minister or other person, during these pauses, have any observation or exhortation to make, which is frequently the case, he makes it. If no person should feel himself impressed to speak, the assembled persons depart. The act of seeing the body deposited in the grave, is the last public act of respect which the Quakers show to their deceased relations. This is the whole process of a Quaker-funeral.



Quakers use no vaults in their burying-grounds—Relations sometimes buried near each other, but oftener otherwise—They use no tomb-stones or monumental inscriptions—Reasons for this disuse—But they sometimes record accounts of the lives, deaths, and dying sayings, of their Ministers.  

The Quakers, in the infancy of their institution, were buried in their gardens, or orchards, or in the fields and premises of one another. They had at that time no grave-yards of their own; and they refused to be buried in those of the church, lest they should thus acknowledge the validity of an human appointment of the priesthood, the propriety of payment for gospel-labor, and the peculiar holiness of consecrated ground. This refusal to be buried within the precincts of the church, was considered as the bearing of their testimony for truth. In process of time they raised their own meeting-houses, and had their respective burying places. But these were not always contiguous, but sometimes at a distance from one another, The Quakers have no sepulchers or arched vaults under ground for the reception of their dead. There has been here and there a vault, and there is here and there a grave with sides of brick; but the coffins, containing their bodies, are usually committed to the dust.

I may observe also, that the Quakers are sometimes buried near their relations, but more frequently otherwise. In places where the Quaker-population is thin, and the burial ground large, a relation is buried next to a relation, if it be desired. In other places, however, the graves are usually dug in rows, and the bodies deposited in them, not as their relations lie, but as they happen to be opened in succession without any attention to family connections. When the first grave in the row is opened and filled, the person who dies next, is put into that which is next to it; and the person who dies next, occupies that which is next to the second[3]. It is to many an endearing thought, that they shall lie after their death, near the remains of those whom they loved in life. But the Quakers, in general, have not thought it right or wise to indulge such feelings. They believe that all good men, however their bodies may be separated in their subterraneous houses of clay, will assuredly meet at the resurrection of the just.

[Footnote 3: By this process a small piece of ground is longer in filling, no room being lost, and the danger and disagreeable necessity of opening graves before the bodies in them are decayed, is avoided.]

The Quakers also reject the fashions of the world in the use of tomb-stones and monumental inscriptions. These are generally supposed to be erected out of respect to the memory or character of the deceased.  The Quakers, however, are of opinion, that this is not the proper manner of honoring the dead. If you wish to honor a good man, who has departed this life, let all his good actions live in your memory; let them live in your grateful love and esteem; so cherish them in your heart, that they may constantly awaken you to imitation. Thus you will show, by your adoption of his amiable example, that you really respect his memory. This is also that tribute, which, if he himself could be asked in the other world how he would have his memory respected in this, he would prefer to any description of his virtues, that might be given by the ablest writer, or handed down to posterity by the ablest monument of the sculptor’s art.

But the Quakers have an objection to the use of tomb-stones and monumental inscriptions, for other reasons. For, where pillars of marble, abounding with panegyric, and decorated in a splendid manner, are erected to the ashes of dead men, there is a danger, lest, by making too much of these, a superstitious awe should be produced, and a superstitious veneration should attach to them. The early Christians, by making too much of the relics of their saints or pious men, fell into such errors.

The Quakers believe, again, that if they were to allow the custom of these outward monuments to obtain among them, they might be often led, as the world is, and by the same causes, to a deviation from the truth; for it is in human nature to praise those whom we love, but more particularly when we have lost them. Hence, we find often such extravagant encomiums upon the dead, that if it were possible for these to be made acquainted with them, they would show their disapprobation of such records. Hence we find also, that “as false as an epitaph,” has become a proverbial expression.

But even in the case where nothing more is said upon the tomb-stone than what Moses said of Seth, and of Enos, and of Cainan, and others, when he reckoned up the genealogy of Adam, namely, that “they lived and that they died,” the Quakers do not approve of such memorials. For these convey no merit of the deceased, by which his example should be followed. They convey no lesson of morality: and in general they are not particularly useful. They may serve perhaps to point out to surviving relations, the place where the body of the deceased was buried, so that they may know where to mark out the line for their own graves. But as the Quakers in general have overcome the prejudice of “sleeping with their fathers,” such memorials cannot be so useful to them.

The Quakers, however, have no objection, if a man has conducted himself particularly well in life, that a true statement should be made concerning him, provided such a statement would operate as a lesson of morality to others; but they think that the tomb-stone is not the best medium of conveying it. They are persuaded that very little moral advantage is derived to the cursory readers of epitaphs, or that they can trace their improvement in morals to this source. Sensible, however, that the memorials of good men may be made serviceable to the rising generation, (“and there are no ideas, says Addison, which strike more forcibly on our imaginations, than those which are raised from reflections upon the exits of great and excellent men,”) they are willing to receive accounts of the lives, deaths, and remarkable dying sayings, of those ministers in their own society, who have been eminent for their labors. These are drawn up by individuals, and presented to the monthly meetings, to which the deceased belonged. But here they must undergo an examination before they are passed. The truth of the statement, and the utility of the record, must appear. It then falls to the quarterly meetings to examine them again, and these may alter, or pass, or reject them, as it may appear to be most proper. If these should pass them, they are forwarded to the yearly meeting. Many of them, after this, are printed; and, finding their way into the bookcases of the Quakers, they become collected essays of morality, and operate as incitements to piety to the rising youth. Thus the memorials of men are made useful by the Quakers in an unobjectionable manner; for the falsehood and flattery of epitaphs are thus avoided; none but good men having been selected, whose virtues, if they are recorded, can be perpetuated with truth.



They discard also mourning garments—These are only emblems of sorrow—and often make men pretend to be what they are not—This contrary to Christianity—Thus they may become little better than disguised pomp, or fashionable forms—This instanced in the changes and duration of common mourning—and in the custom also of court-mourning --Ramifications of the latter.  

As the Quakers neither allow of the tomb-stones, nor the monumental inscriptions, so they do not allow of the mourning garments of the world.

They believe there can be no true sorrow but in the heart, and that there can be no other true outward way of showing it than by fulfilling the desires, and by imitating the best actions, of those whom men have lost and loved. “The mourning, says William Penn, which it is fit for a Christian to have on the departure of beloved relations and friends, should be worn in the mind, which is only sensible of the loss. And the love which men have had to these, and their remembrance of them, should be outwardly expressed by a respect to their advice, and care of those they have left behind them, and their love of that which they loved.”

But mourning garments, the Quakers contend, are only emblems of sorrow.  They will therefore frequently be used, where no sorrow is. Many persons follow their deceased relatives to the grave, whose death, in point of gain, is a matter of real joy; witness young spendthrifts, who have been raising sum after sum on expectation, and calculating with voracious anxiety, the probable duration of their relations’ lives. And yet all these follow the corpse to the grave, with white handkerchiefs, mourning habits, slouched hats, and dangling hat-bands. Mourning garments, therefore, frequently make men pretend to be what they are not. But no true or consistent Christian can exhibit an outward appearance to the world, which his inward feelings do not justify.

It is not contended here by the Quakers, that because a man becomes occasionally a hypocrite, this is a sufficient objection against any system; for a man may be an Atheist even in a Quaker’s garb. Nor is it insinuated, that individuals do not sometimes feel in their hearts, the sorrow which they purpose to signify by their clothing. But it is asserted to be true, that men who use mourning habits as they are generally used, do not wear them for those deceased persons only whom they loved, and abstain from the use of them where they had no esteem, but that they wear them promiscuously on all the occasions which have been dictated by fashion. Mourning habits therefore, in consequence of a long system of etiquette, have become, in the opinion of the Quakers, but little better than disguised pomp, or fashionable forms.

I shall endeavor to throw some light upon this position of the Quakers, by looking into the practice of the world.

In the first place, there are seasons there, when full mourning, and seasons when only half mourning, is to be worn. Thus the habit is changed, and for no other reason, than that of conformity with the laws of fashion. The length of this time also, or season of mourning, is made to depend upon the scale of men’s affinity to the deceased; though nothing can be more obvious, than that men’s affection for the living, and that their sorrow for them when dead, cannot be measured by this standard. Hence the very time that a man shall mourn, and the very time that he shall only half-mourn, and the very time that he shall cease to mourn, is fixed for him by the world, whatever may be the duration of his own sorrow.

In court-mourning also, we have an instance of men being instructed to mourn, where their feelings are neither interested nor concerned. In this case, the disguised pomp, spoken of by the Quakers, will be more apparent. Two princes have perhaps been fighting with each other for a considerable portion of their reigns. The blood of their subjects has been spilled, and their treasures have been exhausted. They have probably had, during all this time, no kind disposition one towards another, each considering the other as the aggressor, or as the author of the war. When both have been wearied out with expense, they have made peace. But they have still mutual jealousies and fears. At length one of them dies. The other, on receiving an express relative to the event, orders mourning for the deceased for a given time. As other potentates receive the intelligence, they follow the example. Their several levees or drawing-rooms, or places of public audience, are filled with mourners. Every individual of each sex, who is accustomed to attend them, is now habited in black. Thus a round of mourning is kept up by the courtiers of Europe, not by means of any sympathetic beating of the heart, but at the sound, as it were, of the postman’s horn.

But let us trace this species of mourning farther, and let us now more particularly look at the example of our own country for the elucidation of the point in question. The same Gazette, which gave birth to this black influenza at court, spreads it still farther. The private gentlemen of the land undertake to mourn also. You see them accordingly in the streets, and in private parties, and at public places, in their mourning habits. Nor is this all. Military officers, who have fought against the armies of the deceased, wear black crapes over their arms in token of the same sorrow.

But the fever does not stop even here. It still spreads, and in tracing its progress, we find it to have attacked our merchants. Yes, the disorder has actually got upon change. But what have I said? Mourning habits upon change! Where the news of an army cut to pieces, produces the most cheerful countenances in many, if it raises the stocks but an half per cent. Mourning habits upon change, where contracts are made for human flesh and blood! Where plans that shall consign cargoes of human beings to misery and untimely death, and their posterity to bondage, are deliberately formed and agreed upon! O sorrow, sorrow! what hast thou to do upon change, except in the case of commercial losses, or disappointed speculation! But to add to this disguised pomp, as the Quakers call it, not one of ten thousand of the mourners, ever saw the deceased prince; and perhaps ninety nine in the hundred, of all who heard of him, reprobated his character when alive.




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