Book Review: The Puritan Way Of Death

The Puritan Way Of Death:  A Study In Religion, Culture, And Social Change, by David E. Stannard

As someone who has written an essay on aspects of the Puritan way of death [1], and someone who tends to reflect often upon death and the complexity of how we deal with it, I found much to appreciate in this book that others may not necessarily appreciate in the same way.  That said, if you like reading about how the view of death has changed over time and the way that the Puritan’s view of death was neither inhumane nor a bad example of our own times, this book provides a reflective look at how it was that the Puritans dealt honestly with death in a way that we would be hard-pressed to emulate because of the way that we have shielded ourselves from better understanding the more unpleasant aspects of our reality.  Indeed, the Puritan opposition to the more romantic view of death that we have is something that makes its view of death rather important for us to come to grips with, even if this book is merely a partial survey of that way of thinking and not as complete as the author or reader would hope.

This book is about 200 pages long and is divided into three parts and seven chapters.  Beginning with a preface and then an introduction (I), the first part of the book explores death within the general patterns of Western tradition (1), setting the context for what made the Puritan view distinctive.  After that, the bulk of the book discusses the Puritan Way of Death (II), with chapters that look at the world of the Puritan (2), death and childhood (3), death and dying (4), death and burial (5), and death and decline (6).  These chapters help the reader to understand what the Puritans expressed concerning their own fears about death and the split between their view that death was supposed to be the entrance into the Kingdom of heaven on the one hand, but also something that they did not always handle well, even while expecting to be bodily resurrected in the future without a desire to be very showy about death and graves.  Finally, the book ends with a discussion of how the Puritan way of death moved towards an American way of death that was more romantic and less honest (7) in the Epilogue (III), after which there are notes and an index.

It is wise that the author considers this book to be an extended essay rather than the sort of book that most people would expect.  The author does not have all the answers about the Puritan view of death and that topic is itself limited to the evidence that we have.  The author does not even use all of that evidence, as he is more interested in the writing that people had about death and their views of judgment and the suffering they experienced at the loss of their children and the seriousness in which they took God’s judgment than he is about pondering what the wills of the Puritans meant.  There is a lot of look at headstones and what they have to say about the view of death that Puritans had, which was a lot different in the United States (where headstones were more common) than in England where such things were viewed as holdovers from the days of vile popery and superstition, which I can well understand.  The author does a great job with fragmentary evidence and this is a notable if an obscure achievement in exploring how it is that views of death change and how they are shaped sometimes in opposition to the ways of the past.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: The Puritan Way Of Death

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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