Old Burying-Ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The image shows typical Puritan gravestone imagery, including a death's head, an hourglass, and text reading "MEMENTO MORI" ("remember you must die") and "FUGIT HORA" (time flies").

Straightened Up and Dying Right? Queering Puritan Deathbeds

When I was ten, I was present at a close family friend’s deathbed, an experience that sparked my lifelong curiosity about what happens when a person moves from this life into whatever might or might not exist beyond it. Hence my interest in the Puritans. Few folks have expended more time and effort trying to nail down what exactly was occurring spiritually at the moment of death than they did. Indeed, scholar Adrienne Rich suggested that the Puritan lifestyle was perhaps “the most self-conscious ever lived,” creating an existential drama in which every moment held potential clues about the ultimate postmortem fate of an individual’s soul.1 However, no moment held more existential weight than the deathbed moment, which served as the capstone to an individual’s life.

The deathbed was pivotal, as it marked the indescribable juncture when a person’s soul and body hovered on the brink of death, not quite a part of this earthly world anymore but also not yet enveloped into the next. In this way, Puritan deathbeds can be viewed as queer spaces, as they occupied space between life and death, doing away with the commonly conceptualized binary between these two states of being. The word “queer,” used in this sense, connotes liminality (derived from the Latin word for threshold, līmen, and used to describe states of in-betweenness, as a threshold is used to cross from one place into another). From the perspective of Puritan theology, on a deathbed, the dying person embarked on a journey toward greater spiritual knowledge of death and the afterlife, and, in their final moments, they might glean information about what lay beyond this world which could, perhaps, be passed on to the surviving witnesses huddled around their deathbeds. This mysterious, confusing journey through the liminal space between life and death, characterized by deathbed scenes, caught Puritans’ attention.

The deathbed’s perplexing liminality is reflected in the words spoken by a thirty-year-old Puritan woman, Jerusha Oliver, as she was nearing her own death: “I see a Glory, which cannot be expressed; persons and things, which I want a language to declare what they are.” The dying body, suspended between death and life, occupied a space that often defied attempts to reduce the process of dying to an articulable experience, even for the dying person. Literary scholar Sarah Rivett has observed of deathbed confessions that “the recorded testimony stands as a remnant of that in-between state, an encapsulated moment in which the dying saint achieves near-perfect knowledge of his or her soul before the dissolution of the earthly body. Suspended between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the dying opened up a frontier of divine knowledge that had particular appeal to Puritan ministers and natural philosophers.”2 The deathbed’s liminality made it a uniquely intriguing subject of inquiry for Puritan intellectuals. However, their quest for empirical knowledge of the deathbed was persistently stymied by the very queer, liminal qualities that made it so tantalizing.

Image from page 100 of “History of the Pilgrims and Puritans, their ancestry and descendants; basis of Americanization.” (Internet Archive Book Image/Flickr)

Jerusha Oliver’s desire for death was acute, lending another dimension to the deathbed’s queerness. Her last words, “Eye has not seen, Ear has not heard, neither entred into the Heart of Man, the things which God has prepared for them that Love Him!” suggest that the wisdom granted to her on her deathbed led her to realize that all the empirical strategies that ministers and natural philosophers might employ to demystify death were destined to be futile. What’s more, her desire to die and be one with Christ likely made such earthly scientific efforts appear totally pointless. Done with trying to isolate life’s most profound mysteries, she was “in Distress to be Gone!” The concept of desire is intrinsically emmeshed in queer theory, primarily because queer theory has its intellectual roots in psychoanalysis, a process designed to explore humans’ deepest yearnings.3 Devout Puritans believed that the spiritual elect – those destined for heaven – would be overwhelmed on their deathbeds with an intensely passionate longing for unity with Christ.

This longing was simultaneously spiritual and erotic. Puritan writers were no strangers to sexual metaphors describing the soul’s union with Jesus. Souls, usually conceptualized as feminine in nature, yearned for a postmortem union with Jesus, as a figurative bride to a bridegroom. When a person’s soul ascended to heaven, they could look forward to a marital consummation, no matter their perceived bodily sex. Indeed, minister Samuel Willard eagerly anticipated the “intimacy that there is between the most loving Husband and the most beloved Wife, and transcendently greater.”4 Death would lend the dying an opportunity to experience the electric, ecstatic passion of becoming one with Christ.

While the dying soul was experiencing a queer space of inarticulable transition, characterized by unfulfilled and then consummated desire, deathbed attendants longed to make sense of the experience they were witnessing – arguably an even more difficult task. While the dying person had the benefit of being able to sense, although not necessarily articulate, what awaited them in their impending afterlife, deathbed witnesses were excluded from the dying person’s physical and spiritual passage. They had to remain behind, anxiously watching for signs that the dying person’s soul was finally peacefully ascendant, and wondering how their own soul would ultimately fare on their own deathbed. Their desire to understand – to name, to define, to demystify – what occurred on a deathbed was perhaps a quest destined to fail, but Puritans eagerly took up the challenge.

An enthusiasm for comprehending and delineating – and therefore un-queering – deathbed experiences haunted Puritan intellectuals, who employed empirical strategies in attempts to scientifically discern spiritual movement. Richard Saunders, in his 1682 work View of the Soul, likened grief to the spirit as akin to light to the eye’s pupil. Like light striking the eye, grief created the conditions for a metaphysical sharpening of view that made deathbeds an exceptionally rich opportunity for spiritual investigation.5 Witnessing a deathbed was a privilege that allowed survivors greater insight into their own spiritual fates. This theme was taken up by the hyper-devout minister Cotton Mather, who encouraged aspirants to the ministry to imagine themselves on their deathbeds as an exercise designed to enhance their spiritual vision: “Place yourself in the Circumstances of a Dying Person; your Breath failing, your Throat rattling, your Eyes with a dim Cloud, and your hands with a dampt Sweat upon them, and your weeping friends no longer able to retain you with them.”6 This visualization, designed to imaginatively embody the deathbed experience and thereby receive the queer knowledge dying people possessed, sought to provide ministerial candidates with a pseudo-experiential understanding of what it was like to die. But, how could this enterprise possibly allow folks who were mere onlookers at deathbeds to access such enlightenment? Despite these hopeful scientific and imaginative inquiries, the dying soul and body’s experience remained stubbornly indefinable and boundary-crossing – and, as such, determinedly queer.

The spectral, queer nature of the deathbed transition was cross-culturally significant, as Puritans looked for perceived epistemological commonalities with the Indigenous communities whose homelands they colonized.7 The nonconformist minister and theologian Roger Williams noted in his A Key into the Language of America multiple Narragansett phrases related to death, tracing a chronology of dying that attempted to capture each apparent step of death as recognizably discrete. Narragansett cosmology and linguistics recognized the subtle physical and spiritual shifts undergone on a deathbed, and Williams recorded their conceptualizations of this mortal metamorphosis:

As Pummíssin. | He is not yet departed.
Neene. | He is drawing on.
Paúsawut kitonckquêwa. | He cannot live long.
Chachéwunnea. | He is neere dead.
Kitonckquêi. | He is dead.
Nipwí mâw. | He is gone.

Williams copied down and translated these words not just because they cast light on Narragansett epistemologies, but also because he expected they would be of interest to his imagined English audience. His decision to record these specific phrases indicates that he recognized and understood the desire to break down the liminal process of dying as a cross-cultural impulse, one that he found not foreign or confusing, but, rather, potentially useful to his fellow Englishmen. Could these Narragansett words potentially be enlisted as further data in his own theological quest to encapsulate the inarticulable queerness of dying? Could this articulation of the deathbed as a journey of sorts, based in an intangible spectrum, resonate with his intended English audience? Clearly, Williams expected it could. This delineated, process-oriented language hinted at a way for deathbed witnesses to wrap their minds around the queer knowledge they still couldn’t access.

Personally, when I reflect on my own experience witnessing a deathbed, I empathize with the Puritan impulse to struggle towards extracting fundamental truths about the experience, to break it down into understandable pieces, to avoid its queerness. However, embracing the experience’s queerness is what has brought me the greatest understanding and acceptance. Like Jerusha Oliver, I have no language to declare what I saw and felt, but I strive to accept that mystery.

Notes

  1. Adrienne Rich, “Early American Literature 1620–1830: Puritan Historiography,” in Norton Anthology of Early American Literature, ed. Nina Baym, 5th ed., vol. 1, 155. Return to text.
  2. Sarah Rivett, “Tokenography: Narration and the Science of Dying,” Early American Literature 42, no. 3 (2007): 472. Return to text.
  3. Carla Freccero, “Queer Spectrality: Haunting the Past,” in A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies, eds. George E. Haggerty and Molly McGarry (Blackwell, 2007), 194. Return to text.
  4. See Kathy J. Cooke, “Generations and Regeneration: ‘Sexceptionalism’ and Group Identity among Puritans in Colonial New England,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 23, no. 3 (Sept. 2014): 348, n. 64. Return to text.
  5. Rivett, “Tokenography,” 478. Return to text.
  6. Ibid., 475. Return to text.
  7. See Erik Seeman, “Ways of Dying, Ways of Living” and “Grave Missions: Christianizing Death in New England,” in Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Return to text.

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