Eighteenth-Century Perceptions of Death

 Life and Death Contrasted... or, An Essay on Woman. Hand-colored woodcut engraving, ca. 1770.

Valentine Green, Life and Death Contrasted... or, An Essay on Woman. Hand-colored woodcut engraving, ca. 1770.

John Williams worked as a cabinet and coffin maker throughout the eighteenth-century. As a result, it is necessary to examine how people in the eighteenth-century would have viewed death to gain a better understanding of the significance of making a coffin for a deceased individual. It is safe to say that death is something that comes for everyone. In the British Atlantic world, death and decay were not new topics. However, during the eighteenth century, one of its most horrific aspects was the decay that the body underwent. Society judged politeness and virtue not only on actions, but on outward appearance. How quickly a body decayed was thought to reflect an individual’s politeness in life. In Christianity, white often symbolizes purity. Therefore, the body of a caucasian individual turning black in death was thought to reflect an individual who lacked morality or virtue. Additionally, decay and changes in color of the skin and flesh reinforced racialized sterotypes to non-white bodies.

Consequently, new advancements in mortuary science came about during this century. Embalming, in particular, was thought to help preserve the fair color of white individuals, enabling their outward appearance to fit ideas of  dignity in death. In England, lead coffins were also used to help tightly seal coffins from outside elements, better preserving the body housed inside. However, in the American colonies, despite being up-to-date on English scientific techniques and burial practices, embalming and lead coffins were rare and, if used, were reserved for very important burials.