Have you ever seen a Quaker Burying Ground? They are the epitome of simplicity and serenity. The stones are all small (the reason for which is described below) and non-Quaker names appear here and there. Names of slaves and Indians – not your typical church cemetery you must admit! Knowing more about Quaker burials will give us some insight.
Quakers tended to have simple funerals. A funeral, called a “memorial service,” was usually held in a meeting house. Members gathered to honor and remember the deceased. The service often began with an explanation by the Elders of what would happen during the meeting, because it was assumed that a number of mourners were not Quakers and would not know the Quaker customs. Then everyone sat in silent meditation. Some might share a memory with the congregation, but there was usually no eulogy given.
A Quaker funeral was not a somber affair but rather a celebration of the life that was lived. In honor of this fact, Quakers did not wear black as a symbol of mourning and there was no prescribed mourning period for Quakers.
Quakers were not permitted to be buried in parish cemeteries in Britain, so as meetings (congregations) were established and land was purchased, they also acquired land for burial grounds. This practice was continued when the Quakers came to the colonies. Many, if not most, meetings had their own burial grounds unless a large city was nearby, where Quakers could be buried in municipal plots.
The Philadelphia Common practices varied from one meeting to another, but there was usually a funeral committee, made up of members of the meeting who had oversight of funerals and made necessary arrangements for the burials. Historically, the deceased were buried in the “next available” lot. Some meetings allowed families to be buried adjoining lots, although this practice was not the norm.
Most Quaker meetings differed from other denominations by allowing American Indians, slaves, and individuals of reduced circumstances to be buried in their burial grounds. But no matter who the deceased person was, Quakers did not allow public displays of wealth or position in their cemeteries. For this reason, you will not find large stones or epitaphs in a Quaker burial ground; stones were kept small and of a uniform shape and size. Per the 1717 Quaker Book of Discipline: “…. in each particular burial ground, such uniformity is preserved in respect to the materials, size, form and wording of the stones, as well as in the mode of placing them, as may effectually guard against any distinction being made in that place between the rich and the poor.”
Here are some other details about Quaker burial grounds:
- The earliest Quaker burial grounds were simple fields of unmarked stone, in keeping with the discipline of simplicity.
- The Philadelphia and Ohio Yearly Meetings did not permit tombstones until the late 1800s.
- If there were any stones, they usually only provided the names of the deceased, their age or birth year, and date of death. (Here is a guide to understanding Quaker dates.)
- Not all individuals who were buried there are Quakers.
- Not all Quakers were buried in Quaker burial grounds.
- Most meetings did not keep careful records of the persons interred in their lots; they relied instead on the memories of their members to know where to dig the next lot (!)
- Some meetings kept meticulous records of burials in plot maps. For details and maps of “Quaker Burial Grounds in Philadelphia from 1683 to Present,” visit Swarthmore College’s Philadelphia Quaker Burials.
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