Death, Funerals, and Cemeteries at Mount Lebanon
The Grave Situation
The Shakers carried their belief systems with them to their graves, eschewing the burial practices that had gained favor in Victorian America. Ornamental coffins and exclusive cemeteries were readily dismissed in favor of burial grounds that were “devoid of all ostentation.” Writing in 1877, Elder Oliver Hampton described how the Shaker graveyard at Union Village, Ohio, “would never be suspected of being a cemetery. It is leveled off and planted in forest trees, and the spot where the remains of our dear friends lay, is not marked by even a head or foot-stone.” This practice was criticized by other Shakers, including Elder Giles Avery, who lamented in 1872 that, “to inter the human corpse in the same manner as the dead body of a brute, that is, without any kind of monument to designate the place of its interment, or, even with a naked stone, without any lettering on it to record the name of the deceased buried beneath it, has a demoralizing tendency upon the living.” While some Shakers had small unmarked headstones, others had markers that included their initials or full name, some of which were made of cast iron. Regardless of which headstone was used, each of them reflected the Shakers’ “plain and simple” belief system.
Though Shakers had dismissed some of the burial practices of the outside world, their funerals aligned closely with Christian practices during the Victorian era. The Shaker Millennial laws dictated that, “When the spirit is departing and a person is breathing the last, all present should kneel in prayer.” The body was then laid out and dressed before the procession to the grave. Shakers were sensitive to the effect burials might have on children, who were not allowed to partake in the procession to the graveyard. The ceremonies, like contemporary Christian funerals, featured at least one hymn and “all who reasonably can” were required to attend to the services in honor of their Brothers and Sisters.
The group’s burial ideologies are demonstrated in the North Family Shakers’ Cemetery and Memorial, one of many Shaker cemeteries found at Mount Lebanon.