Pilgrim Burials: How They Honored the Dead in Uncertain Times

The first settlers in New England were buried in unmarked graves.

Burying a Pilgrim was a relatively simple affair which didn't include many of the rituals performed at funerals today. Find out why the occupants of the Mayflower were buried in unmarked graves and learn about funeral gloves and other traditions from early American burials.

Death on the Mayflower

Conditions on the Atlantic Ocean crossing were poor, at best. What little fresh food the Pilgrims brought with them was quickly consumed. There was no personal space to be had; passengers slept in hammocks, since there were no cabins for passengers.

The occupants of the ship were miserable. To make matters worse, two passengers died en route to America. They were buried at sea in an effort to stem the spread of disease. Family members did not have an exact burial site to visit and there was no time for the traditional observations of grief.

Pilgrim Burials in North America

When Pilgrims died, headstones were not erected at the burial site. No artisans skilled in carving stone had come over with the first group of settlers. In addition, there was no stone available in the area where the Pilgrims settled from which to fashion a monument to the dead. Their first priority was to concentrate on the tasks necessary for survival; even if the stone carvers had come on the trip, there wasn't any time to carve headstones.

A family wanting to erect a headstone in memory of a loved one would have to go to the expense of having one brought over from England.

Wolf Stone

If a person was away from home when he or she died, then the burial took place at a location near where the death occurred. Shovels were used to dig a shallow grave for the deceased. To keep the site from being disturbed by wild animals, a large flat stone was placed on top of the freshly dug grave. This stone became known as the "wolf stone."

Burial Rituals

In the early years after the arrival of the Pilgrims in North America, funerals were a very simple matter. No funeral ceremony was conducted and no special sermon was given. The grieving family did not wear mourning clothes for a certain time after the death. Embalming of the body of the deceased was not done. On occasion, graves were opened and reused. The bodies of a family or a small community may share the same grave.

It's thought that the Pilgrims were buried in unmarked graves because they didn't want the Native Americans living in the area to know how small of a population they were. After the early Americans were more well-established and life was not such a daily struggle for survival, Pilgrim burials became more elaborate. A funeral with a eulogy was conducted for the dearly departed. The grave was dug in such a way that it faced west, toward the setting sun.

Members of the grieving family wore mourning clothes. Scarves or ribbons would be worn to indicate that they had suffered the loss of a loved one. Funeral gloves would be sent to those people invited to attend the funeral. By this point, headstones were carved and erected at the grave site.


Burial markers featured images of hourglasses and skulls (with wings attached). The headstone would be inscribed with the words, "Here Lies the Body of…". This phrase indicates that Puritan religious faith did not include the belief in the resurrection of the body on the day of Christ's return to earth. Pilgrim burials started off as very simple affairs, which reflected the circumstances the newcomers to American lived in. As the community became more settled and conditions improved, funeral rituals also became more formal. We follow similar rituals to this day.

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Pilgrim Burials: How They Honored the Dead in Uncertain Times