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Image Delaware Death Ways: The Quaker Idea of Optimistic Fatalism

By the standards of the age, rates of mortality in the Delaware Valley were in a middling range during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century—lower than in Virginia, but higher than in Massachusetts. From 1675 to 1750, death rates increased and also became increasingly unstable—with sudden surges caused by the spread of epidemic disease.1

In that setting the Quakers no less than Puritans and Anglicans frequently reminded themselves of what John Woolman called “the uncertainty of temporal things.” They cultivated an attitude of fatalism which was nearly universal in this era. But the substance of their fatalistic thinking was not the same as that of other people. The Quaker attitude might be described as optimistic fatalism—optimistic in more ways than one. They regarded death as the climax of life—an event not to be feared or abhorred but welcomed and embraced. Death for a believing Quaker was an act of Christian apotheosis—the extinction of the mortal self.

Quakers were deeply interested in deathbed scenes, which had a very different texture from those of Puritan Massachusetts. A favorite book among Friends was Piety Promoted, an anthology of Quaker deathbed events which was published in at least thirty editions during the eighteenth century. This genre was not unique to Quakers; Puritans and Anglicans also produced many collections of the same sort. But the Quakers had different ways of thinking about mortality.2

An example was the death of a twenty-eight-year-old Quaker named Sybil Matlock Cooper, in 1759. Her husband recorded the event. As the end approached she said:

Give me one drop more of cold water, then let me go if it be thy will, Father, divers times repeating Come Death, Come Death. … The blood now retired from her face, and it was thought she was expiring, but it returned and she came to her natural colour as in a time of health and opening her eyes asked to be raised up. She seemed to admire to find herself still with us … I said My Dear, it may be the almighty will please to restore you to us again. She replied, I have not desired it.3

Many others not merely accepted death but welcomed it in this manner. Mary Penington wrote that since she came to be “settled in the truth,” she lived “free from the sting of death and without the least desire to live.”4 Yet another example was William Dillwyn’s description of his wife’s death:

Her sense continued to the last and free from pain. … [she] resigned her breath in a happy frame of mind and humble assurance of eternal rest—which even in that solemn hour her countenance sweetly testified—an innocent smile remaining on it, when a corpse.5

Male Quakers showed the same attitude. Joseph Oxley wrote:

I am now pretty far advanced in years, waiting daily until my change shall come, having no desire to stay longer than is my Master’s good will and pleasure; in this state of resignation I desire to live, and to live so as to be fit to die.6

Quakers often dreamed about death, as did New England Puritans and Anglican Virginians, and published their dreams in hundreds of journals. Many of these accounts were elaborate death fantasies in which the writers, after an initial feeling of revulsion, embraced death and glorified it. The classical example was a dream that came to John Woolman as he lay upon his sickbed:

In a time of sickness, with the pleurisy a little upward of two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be and live, and that I was mixed with them, and that henceforth I might not consider self as a distinct or separate being.

In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to other angels. The words were, “John Woolman is dead.” I soon remembered that I once was John Woolman, and being assured that I was alive in the body, I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean. I believed beyond doubting that it was the voice of an holy angel, but as yet it was a mystery to me. …

The song of the angel remained a mystery; and in the morning, my dear wife and some others coming to my bedside, I asked them if they knew who I was, and they telling me I was John Woolman, thought I was only light-headed, for I told them not what the angel said. …

At length I felt a Divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and I then said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ that liveth in me. …” Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language, “John Woolman is dead,” meant no more than the death of my own will.7

In the face of death, Quakers cultivated an attitude not merely of resignation but confident expectation. For believing Quakers, death became the fulfillment of life. It was an escape from the corruptions of the world, and the final transcendence of the mortal self.

When death actually came to a Quaker household, the entire family assembled, and shared an experience of the highest solemnity. The last words were heard with loving attention. The dying Friend lay at the very center of his friends and relations. Visitors crowded into the room, and children were also required to watch, listen and reflect. But once “the spirit had flown,” Quakers showed comparatively little interest in the physical remains of the deceased. Burial, funeral and mourning customs were exceptionally austere in this culture. Quakers grieved over the deaths of their loved ones as deeply as other people. But they condemned a show of mourning as “proud” and “vain” and “needless.” The yearly meeting in 1728 condemned “wearing black or black and white cloathes at Burials.”8 Funerals were kept very plain and simple. Large processions were discouraged. There were no palls, bearers, mutes, rings or gloves. Meetings issued strict rules of restraint for these occasions. One meeting urged its members “to keep out all needless and ayery [airy] discourses and to behave themselves soberly and in a weighty mind as becomes Truth; and not to be hasty to put the corpse in the ground, but pause a little that all may be done in a very solemn manner.”9

The act of interment itself was also very simple among the Quakers. When Richard Cooke was buried at Chester, the total expenses were six shillings for a plain wood coffin, and four shillings for all other charges.10 John Woolman asked that his coffin be made without any ornament from ash instead of oak, because “Oak … is a wood more useful than ash.”11 The corpse was wrapped in a simple shroud, woven of wool in England and of linen in America.

The issue of gravemarkers was, as Pearson Thistlethwaite has written, a special “stone of stumbling” for Quakers.12 The London yearly meeting recommended in 1766 that all markers should be removed from Quaker graves. Many meetings refused to agree, and Quakers quarreled about this practice for years. Not until 1850 were gravestones approved by the London yearly meeting—a plain flat marker without ornament or elaborate inscriptions.13

Wakes were also discouraged. George Fox called them a “heathen custom.” In the year 1700 the York quarterly meeting agreed that:

This meeting having under their weighty consideration the practice that is used in many places among Friends at burials (vizt.) of giving Cakes, and providing much meat and drink for the neighbors and friends which may come to such burials, it is the sense of this meeting that the providing too much meat and drink and cakes or such like things in the Method and manner aforesaid, tends to the prejudice and hurt of Truth’s testimony.

Shortly thereafter, cakes and “such like” things were forbidden outright by the York meeting, and “two weighty and faithful Friends” were appointed to “inspect and see into the practice.” But they continued to occur, despite official disapproval.14

Wakes were also discouraged in America, but never entirely suppressed. According to tradition, Quakers throughout the Delaware Valley worked out a compromise. Cakes and wine were served before a burial, and a full meal thereafter—but with a spirit of self-restraint. The bottle was allowed to circulate only twice.15

As time passed, mourning customs grew more elaborate among the Quaker colonies. Thomas Chalkley complained as early as 1714 that “funerals began to be growing thing among us.”16 As late as 1782, a child’s elaborate burial in a Quaker graveyard inspired one disapproving Friend to write:

The child’s father had been disowned for paying a military fine. His mother, a worthy public friend, was not present. His wife and children were members. The corpse was carried by four young women. Three of them did not belong to Friends, the other a disowned widow’s daughter. [They] were dressed in white, their hands white with powder, without bonnets, etc. To see this show enter our graveyard, and the corpse a member of a society that professed so much plainness and self-denial affected me much and occasioned disagreeable observations.17

As this comment suggests, old attitudes toward death lingered for a century in the Delaware Valley.

Among the other ethnic groups in this region, similar death customs were also kept by German Pietists. The Amish, for example, tended to share the same optimistic fatalism, the same death-watches until the flying of the spirit, the same austere burials, and the same emotional restraint. There were differences of detail. The Amish carefully washed the corpse, and always dressed it in white. But with these exceptions German Pietists, English Quakers and other Protestant “Spiritists” were very similar in their mortuary customs. In general, the death ways of these English and German cultures in the Delaware Valley had a very special texture that rose from their religious beliefs.

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