This is a serialization of the new book written by Carl Flowers, owner of Silveus Plantation, the subject of “Groton’s Anonymous Mistress.” The 300-year-old home is accessed by Kemp Street near the boundary of Groton and Dunstable.
By Carl Flowers
Just as births took place at home, so did deaths. No undertakers or funeral homes existed. The first to die in the Mistress was Jerathmeel Bowers on April 23, 1724. He’s the fourteenth person known to be buried in Groton’s Old Burying Ground. Shortly after coming to Groton and building the Mistress, Jerathmeel knew his death was imminent.
Nearly a year before he died, he was plagued by severe pain that seem to grow worse with each passing day. At death, probably caused by cancer, all Jerathmeel wished for was a decent funeral. “He gave his soul to God, who had given it to him,” according to his will. He gave his body to the earth, doubting not that it would be raised by God in a general resurrection.
Because one of Jerathmeel’s funeral expenses was for a doctor, his body may have been prepared for burial by a doctor. The number of days between death and burial would be the primary factor. If burial would be more than two or three days after death, his body would most likely have been disemboweled and the abdominal cavity filled with charcoal because embalming was an unknown practice. Other measures for restraining putrefaction involved immersing the body in alcohol or wrapping it in an alum-soaked cloth; thus, the twelve yards of mourning wool that was purchased for Jerathmeel’s funeral.
If his body wasn’t prepared for burial by a doctor, it would definitely have been done by a midwife. His estate could easily afford the expense of washing his body and laying it out until a coffin was made. The task didn’t have to be done by a friend or a family member. The quality of the coffin’s wood reflected Jerathmeel’s social position; even though, he may not have been well known in Groton. He had spent more than 50 years in Chelmsford.
The room in which Jerathmeel would have been laid out was the parlor and it’s where he would have stayed until his coffin was delivered to the Mistress by a cabinet maker or carpenter. Parlors were special rooms reserved only for notable occasions. A funeral was one of the few acceptable events. The room was kept closed, and not available for everyday household activity. The parlor was always located in front of the house on the right side of the front door. When the coffin was delivered, the deceased left the Mistress for burial within a short period of time.
Coffins were only made at the time of a person’s death. They weren’t made in advance, so there wasn’t a selection on hand from which a choice could be made. When the appointed time arrived, Jerathmeel’s body would have left the Mistress through the front door to a waiting cart or wagon that would wind its way over a mud-rutted road to the cemetery. Because of his strict orthodox upbringing, Jerathmeel’s body would more than likely have been interred without ceremony. No prayers, no sermon or any other kind of religious service was given.
A minister may have been present at the burial; however, no payments of any kind were made to a minister. The whole idea for such simplicity and quiet dignity was to avoid anything that was suggestive of the Church of England or the Church of Rome. Friends and relatives would have stood silently around the grave watching it be filled by the same individuals who just a short time earlier had been hired to dig the grave. If those individuals had not been hired, the grave would have been dug and then filled by friends or family members. Gravediggers were unknown at the time.
Once the burial was over, the mourners returned to the Mistress for an extreme social gathering. To pay tribute to Jerathmeel, sixty-four pair of gloves were given out. Other gifts might have included books, rings and scarves. In addition to all these articles of tribute, drink and food were provided to the mourners in great quantities by two men who had been dispatched to Charlestown. The trip would have taken two days in travel time at the very least. Wine, a barrel of cider and copious amounts of food were provided.
The center of all the activity was the parlor. Everything was paid for out of Jerathmeel’s estate. The extravagance exhibited at Jerathmeel’s funeral was a common practice placing many families in financial ruin. To eliminate these extraordinary expenses, Massachusetts passed several laws to get rid of the ruinous practices.
Beginning in 1721 the Massachusetts General Court forbade the giving of scarves. Anyone caught passing them out faced a penalty of twenty pounds. Then, in 1742, the General Court expanded the list of forbidden items to included gloves, wine, rum and rings. The penalty for violating the law was increased to fifty pounds, payable by the estate’s administrator and not out of the assets of the deceased person. The only exception was for six pair of gloves that could be given to pallbearers and the minister of the church where the deceased belonged.