How Pilgrim Burials Were Handled After the Mayflower Landed in the USA

If you want to know how burials were handled after the Mayflower landed in the USA, you’ve come to the right place! Pilgrim burials were relatively simple when Mayflower landed in the USA.

The funerals didn’t include many of the rituals we perform at funerals today. Keep reading to discover why the settlers were buried in unmarked graves and where the gravesite is located today.


The Mayflower

The three-masted merchant ship Mayflower went on a voyage carrying a group of English Puritans who came to be known as the Pilgrims on September 6, 1620.

The group consisting of 102 passengers and 30 crews set out from Plymouth, Southwestern England, to the New World. Most were members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church who fled England to escape social persecution and seek religious freedom.

Some of the most distinguished passengers on the Mayflower included Myles Standish, a soldier who became their military leader in the new colony; and William Bradford, the leader of the Separatist Church and author of the “Of Plymouth Plantation” that recorded their Mayflower voyage and the founding of the Plymouth Colony.

Mayflower’s intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at that time was part of the already established colony of Virginia.

Rough seas and storms prevented them from reaching their intended destination in Virginia. The conditions on the Atlantic Ocean during that time were poor. After voyaging for 65 days that November, the Mayflower landed on Cape Cod’s shores, present-day Massachusetts.

Before going ashore, discord broke between the separatist and non-separatist who were called “strangers.” They argue that the Virginia company contract was void because the Mayflower landed outside Virginia Company territory.

To resolve the issue, the 41 men signed the Mayflower Compact on November 11, 1620, where they agreed to join together in a civil body politic. This document became the foundation of the new colony government. It became the first document to establish self-government in the New World.

By late November, it was too late to find a place to build houses and get them through the winter. The passengers spent the next several months in the tight, cold, damp quarters on the deck of the Mayflower.

They shared the space with a small sailboat, some farm animals, a few cannons, and carry-on luggage. They hardly had enough room for all of them to lie down simultaneously.

In late November, a scouting party was sent out to the area, and in mid-December, the group landed at Plymouth Harbor on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. During the next months, the Pilgrims lived on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from the shore to where they formed the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England.

Death On The Mayflower

In December, the Pilgrims started to get sick. At first, they thought it was due to scurvy, but it was more likely influenza or pneumonia. Many were afflicted, they were all weak, and many could hardly get up.

Only seven managed to avoid illness and were tasked to care for the afflicted. When the sick died, they stayed next to people suffering the same symptoms until they could be removed from the boat.

Removing the remains of the deceased was a challenge. They hauled up the bodies onto the ship’s main deck, then lowered it to the boat that rowed to the shore.

Sometimes, the bodies were passed through the small portholes on the gun deck that was used to fire cannons in the event of an attack.

The landing craft used was too big to reach the sandy shore. Those assigned to bury the dead had to wade the last few yards through the frigid water of Cape Cod Bay while dragging the bodies after them.

The ground beyond the beach was frozen solid due to winter. The only alternative burial ground they found was the sandy Hill above the beach. The sand is loose and could be easily dug. During the night, they dug the graves but not very deep, just enough to bury the dead.

The burial crew would smooth off the sand to make it look like a plain beach. Nothing marked the burial spot, not even a crucifix.

Pilgrim Burials From The First Winter

The Pilgrims of Plymouth had to resort to a sad pilgrim burial practice during their first winter in the New World.

Deaths were mentioned during church services, but no proper funerals were given. The funerals and pilgrim burials were brief because of the weather conditions and their inability to have an extended mourning period. There were no elaborate funeral ceremonies either.

When Pilgrims died, there were no stone markers or coffins and no lasting memorials. No stonemasons were skilled in stone carving with the first group of settlers.

Also, there were no available stones in the area for making headstones and monuments.

Near their dwellings, the remains were carried up to the banks of the shore, which they called Cole’s Hill. When they dug graves in the sandy soil, they leveled the earth to conceal the pilgrim burial place.

They did this to prevent the Indians from knowing their population from the frequency of deaths and how few and weak they were becoming.

One of the saddest parts in the early history of the Pilgrims was the first harsh winter from January through March of 1621. Over half of the Mayflower settlers died during this time due to malnutrition, great sickness, and inadequate housing during the awful weather.

Of the 102 passengers in the Mayflower, two died on the trip across the Atlantic.

Among those who arrived, 56 died during the first winter.

William Bradford’s register recorded the exact number of pilgrim burials per month during the winter. There was one death in November, six in December, January had 19, February had 17, and in March, they lost 13.

According to Bradford’s account, on average, a grave was dug every three days for four months that ended in March.

Unlike European burials, where they observe religion and fashion in funerary commemoration, the harsh weather and necessity determined how the pilgrim burials took place.

Pilgrim Burial Rituals

Funerals and pilgrim burials were simple during the first few years of Pilgrims’ arrival in North America.

They did not conduct a funeral ceremony or a special sermon during the worship service. The grieving family does not wear mourning clothes after the death of a loved one. There was no embalming of the body either.

On some occasions, graves were opened and reused. Families or small communities often shared the same grave.

When a pilgrim dies away from home, the pilgrim burials occur where the death occurred. They would only dig a shallow grave for the remains.

They put a large flat stone on top of the freshly dug grave to keep the site from being disturbed by wild animals. This stone is called the “wolf stone.”

After the Pilgrims were more well-established in Plymouth, and life was not a daily struggle for survival, Pilgrim burials became more elaborate and formal. A funeral with a eulogy was conducted for the departed. The graves were dug facing west towards the setting sun.

Grieving family members began to wear mourning clothes for funerals. They typically wear scarves or ribbons to indicate that they suffered the loss of a loved one. Funeral gloves are sent to the people invited to attend the funeral. During this time, headstones were carved and erected at the gravesite.

Gravestone markers featured images of hourglasses and skulls with wings. The headstones are inscribed with the words, “Here lies the body of (the deceased name). The Puritan faith did not believe in the resurrection of the body in the second coming of Christ.

As the Pilgrim community became more settled and living conditions improved, funerals and pilgrim burials became formal, which they follow up to this day.

The First Thanksgiving

The Mayflower Pilgrims celebrated the “First Thanksgiving” in November 1621 after their first autumn harvest in the New World.

This feast lasted three days and featured different waterfowl, wild turkeys, fishes, and five deer from the Wampanoag Indians. 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans attended it.

Burial Hill

Burial Hill was a Pilgrims cemetery starting around the 1640s. It was the traditional burial place of the Plymouth colonist. It is where Governor William Bradford and other Mayflower passengers are buried.

No original pilgrim burial marker exists for any Mayflower passengers here; however, a few burial markers date back to the late 17th century.

Many Pilgrims and their families were buried in the same location within the cemetery. The Bradford family and Howland family burial areas are easy to spot because they have modern markers that provide additional details.

Burial Hill cemetery also has a burial marker showing where the original Pilgrim fort was.

The earliest grave markers used by the Pilgrims were made of wood, and none of them survived. Headstones were only used starting in the mid-seventeenth century. The oldest known headstone on Burial Hill is that of Edward Gray, 1681.

Cole’s Hill

Many pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower ended up in a mass grave in Coles Hill, opposite Plymouth Rock. This simple grass hill contains all the Pilgrims who died during the first winter. It has no burial markers but a small monument at the top of the Hill containing the remains of some Pilgrim bones that eroded out of the hillside from a storm.

About 50 of those who came in the Mayflower were buried in Coles Hill, near the foot of Middle-street.

Among them were Gov. Carver, Rose Standish, the wife of Captain Standish, Christopher Martin, William Mullins, William White, Thomas Rogers, Elizabeth, the wife of Edward Winslow, John and Edward Tilley, and Mary, the wife of Isaac Allerton.

Cole’s Hill is where half of the Mayflower found their rest during the first winter. Five graves were discovered in 1855 when they lay the pipes for the town’s waterworks.

Two more graves were found in 1883. The bones of the first five were put in a compartment of the granite canopy that covers the “Forefathers’ Rock where the Pilgrim Fathers landed.

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants erected the mass grave for the Mayflower Pilgrim in 1920. This monument contains the remains of the Pilgrims that have been found in Cole’s Hill settlement.

How Can Funeral Funds Help Me?

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