JUDITH SARGENT MURRAY was interested in burial customs as evidenced by her description of Moravian ceremonies in Bethlehem.
In the Moravian manner of interring their dead, as observed in Bethlehem, and the ceremonies attendant therein, there is something, to me, singularly pleasing—So soon as the spirit is departed from whatever chair or whatever part of the Town—the body is cloathed in white linen, and if a female, the Cap received the Ribbon which designates the order—and the corpse is borne to a small, neat chapel [designed] for this purpose, where it is deposited upon stands until the hour of interment—One of the brethren ascends the highest Edifice, which commands the whole Village, and proclaims the death, by means of a German Instrument of Musick, the name of which I could not learn, and he hath a method of conveying this intelligence, which ascertains the sex, age, and connexion of the deceased.
When the hour of burial approaches, the brethren, the sisterhood, and the children of every description, are by a number of french horns, summoned to attend divine service, in the great chapel, where an exhortation is delivered, and the singing, and instrumental musick, produces a proper, and solemnizing effect—The Body is then borne from the chapel, and placed upon a stand on a beautiful green—the males ranging themselves on one side, and the females on the other—The Body is covered with a snow white Pall, which is ornamented with red, blue, or white ribbon, according to the station of the defunct—upon this Green, a divine anthem is performed, when the deceased is borne to the sepulchrs, instruments of music, resounding, the whole Village, ranging themselves in decent, and beautiful Order, join in the procession—at one of these funerals we attended and we entered the burial ground with a raised, chastized, and solemn kind of satisfaction—Religious exercises were performed at the grave, which being in German, we could not understand, when a sacred concert of vocal and instrumental music again resounding was continued during the interment, and until the Assembly had quitted the Grave yard.
There is a regularity peculiarly pleasing, even in the burial ground at Bethlehem—It is a spacious level plain, decently walled in, exactly divided, and, on one side, are placed the Males, and on the other the females—The Graves are laid out upon a straight line, and we can walk between every one, with as much ease, as we could pursue our way along the gravel Walks of a parterre—The Gray stone is not raised, as with us, but from a modest tablet, which is generally shaded by the verdant grass, and which bears a concise inscription, we receive the necessary information. Thus, these Denizens of tranquility live—and thus their passage out of time is marked. . . .
Addressing her cousin’s wife Dorcas Sargent to whom she has written the above letter Murray says:
“Bless me,” exclaims your husband — “What an Eternal scribbler is this Cousin of ours! Will the Woman never have done? Heavens shield us from her lognacity” . . . . I will leave you to conjecture, and I will intrude no longer, than to assure my dear Mrs Sargent, that I am very sincerely and affectionately her admiring Friend
A Moravian graveyard is referred to as “God’s Acre.” It is said that the name comes from the belief that the bodies of the dead are “sown as seed” in God’s Acre, as in a field, so that they can rise again when Jesus Christ returns to the world. Simple flat gravestones, all alike, identify the dead who are buried with their “choir,” that is, their particular church community, rather than their family, and chronologically, according to the date on which they died. The approach is a testament to the Moravian belief in the “democracy of death.” Music was and is very important to Moravians as is clear from Murray’s description. The instrument whose name Murray did not know was probably the trombone. Favored by the Moravians, its first recorded use in America was in 1754 in Bethlehem.
Bonnie Hurd Smith, the founder of The Judith Sargent Murray Society, has transcribed and published Murray’s letterbooks. See the complete letter HERE. For additional information on Moravian graveyards see HERE. See also an ARTICLE and photograph of the Chapel in The Washington Post by Sue Kovach Shuman.