“The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religious Culture & Social Change” by David E. Stannard – Book Review

I did this thing where I went to college to get a History degree and somehow ended up very much over-concentrating in Puritanism, which I realize is not everyone’s ~cup of tea~ but if you happen to be interested, I recently read a new-to-me book on the subject and wanted to write up a quick review!

The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religious Culture and Social Change by David E. Stannard is a close look at the Puritan religion in the 17th century American colonies and how these beliefs changed the way the Puritans’ entire culture viewed and commemorated death. It breaks down all aspects of death from a cultural standpoint, placing the reader in this specific time and place, while explaining how death affected all areas of their society differently, from children, to families, to those working in funerary arts, and more.

One thing that I really enjoyed about this book was that for a highly academic piece I believe it is really accessible. For instance, if you always find yourself interested in the artwork in historic New England cemeteries the book (albeit in not-so-few words) will really give you a lot of insight into what the religion and culture was like at the time and how this inspired the artwork you can still see in 17th and 18th century cemeteries today. From my reading, I would not say that Stannard assumes you know nothing about Puritanism (if that were the case you probably wouldn’t be picking up such a niche book) but if you only have the basics and are curious about the Puritan’s view of death or tombstone art, you would probably find it an interesting read.

When I talk to people who are less familiar with Puritanism, they are often stunned to learn how intertwined social roles especially in terms of work ethic and an understanding and acceptance of death were with everyday life. Of course, Puritanism is an intense religion, anyone who knows even the bare minimum about events like the Salem Witch Trials or writings by ministers like Cotton Mather could probably tell you that. What I found particularly interesting in terms of these ideas in the book though was how Stannard focused some of his research on how this close intersection impacted all members of Puritan society, particularly children, who were not only well aware of death from a young age but constantly reminded that it would happen to everyone they knew and could just as easily happen to them, not only in the context of them being old or sick, but really at any time if they did not make the best decisions.

As the book was written in 1979, I do think there are some parts that are a bit dated where Stannard was obviously lacking all of the research in this area that has been done beyond that year, but they do not really take away from the book and are not entirely wrong even if you want to read it but wouldn’t know where to catch them– Just some very small details that readers knowledgeable in this field may question a bit from a modern perspective.

I would recommend this book to those already interested in Puritanism and anyone who is simply curious about learning more about the culture of Puritans or their funerary practices. I picked it up in my local library, but it is also available on Amazon in Kindle, paperback, and hardcover.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *