Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Taming the 'King of Terrors': Ritual and Death in Schenectady, New York, 1844-1860

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Taming the 'King of Terrors': Ritual and Death in Schenectady, New York, 1844-1860

Article excerpt

Death is certainly the most universal and, perhaps, most terrifying of all human experiences.(1) Those dying know that all will eventually follow them, but they have only faith to guide them about their fate. Survivors must re-establish their lives in the midst of loss and mourning. Ritual, however, provides both the dying and the survivors with aid and comfort in passing through their times of crisis. Ritual reduces stress by offering acceptable routines which emphasize the commonality of death, instead of isolation and loneliness. Ritual also gives meaning to many of the stages of dying, if not to the ultimate experience. Finally, ritual allows the expression of emotions that would otherwise be proscribed, and defines appropriate forms of behavior. Not surprisingly, rituals, especially those associated with major transitions such as death, often reflect the most fundamental values of a society.

Anyone who undertakes even the most cursory cross-cultural comparison of death rituals quickly learns that specific customs surrounding death vary greatly from one society to another, though there are often similarities in the purposes behind them.(2) Here the focus is on the rituals mid-nineteenth-century Americans used to aid themselves through this most significant transition. Nineteenth-century Americans often referred to death as "the King of Terrors," although they appear from the modern perspective to be both familiar and comfortable with death. This study is based on the extraordinarily full and reflective diaries of Thomas Palmer and Jonathan Pearson, both of whom were middle-aged professionals, who lived in Schenectady, N.Y., in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although both Catholics and Jews lived in Schenectady at that time, the rituals of death described below are Protestant. Other sources make it clear, however, that Palmer and Pearson differed not in the patterns they describe, but only in the fullness of their accounts. In both cases, the author is a survivor, and not the person dying. Both diaries are by fathers and heads of families; there is no equivalent source reflecting a woman's perceptions.

If death rituals tell us much about a society, what can we learn from Palmer and Pearson about nineteenth-century America? In all, seven themes will emerge in what follows. 1) Family was intimately involved with all stages of the rituals of death, providing aid and comfort for both the dying and survivors. 2) The community often played an important role in death rituals, from the presence of friends during sickness and death, to the larger congregations at funerals. 3) Religion stressed the need for preparation and the hope of salvation for those facing death, within the context of family and community. 4) At times, however, religious beliefs led to moral judgements about personal worth, especially when the dying was suspected of not attending to the state of his soul at an appropriate time. 5) Although death rituals reaffirmed communal values, individual circumstances made each death unique and special to both the dying and survivors. 6) Gender and age both had an effect on which of the rituals would receive emphasis. 7) The personalities of the individuals involved, whether dying or diarist, affected the response to death, perhaps most clearly through the relative importance placed on family or community.

We will begin by examining Thomas Palmer's account of the illness and death of his daughter, Mary Palmer Duane. To the extent that there was an ideal way to die, Mary Duane fulfilled all the expectations of the good death. In considering her death, I intend not only to describe what happened, but also to suggest how her death fits broader patterns of Christian ritual that have existed since about A.D. 900.(3) Table 1 provides a useful summary of what I see to be the basic stages of the rituals of death.(4) The death of Henry Pearson, son of Jonathan Pearson, is the first of four other deaths which will be used to indicate how personal circumstances and the accidents of death altered not only what parts of the rituals were emphasized, but also whether the full ritual could be realized. …

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