Mourning, Mementos and the Marketplace: Paul Revere and the New England Funeral

Apr 30, 2024

By: Jay Shanahan


If you were to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston today, just across from Gilbert Stuart’s portrait depicting Revere in his old age is a small gold ring. Known as a “mourning ring,” this piece of jewelry was one of the more common gifts distributed at funerals in early New England. Made in 1783, the MFA describes the piece as “[a] plain gold band with rounded exterior and flat interior,” with the inscription, “Rev’d Saml. Dunbar ob June 15, 1783 AE 78.”*[1] Though simple in design, the ring represents a fascinating intersection of religion, class and material culture.

From the arrival of the first English settlers, death and loss were not just a part of everyday life, but were embedded in almost every aspect of New England culture. The centrality of death comes through the most during one event in particular, the funeral. In the 17th century, the Puritan funeral involved little ceremony. To avoid any sort of resemblance to the Catholic church, there were no elaborate processions or large gatherings, and often no sermons were read. It wasn’t a time to tell stories of a loved one, or to read religious text. The funeral was just a way to mark death.

But the world of the Massachusetts Puritans was changing rapidly by the first half of the 18th century. Cities with bustling harbors such as Boston opened the doors to a larger Atlantic world, and in turn created a society in which products began to hold cultural significance. In all aspects of colonial life in the decades leading to the Revolutionary period, the population at large was shifting away from its Puritan belief system, into one where Georgian gentility influenced the public’s desire–both in the middling and upper classes–for certain possessions.[2] New Englanders were beginning to enjoy a society rich in material goods, goods that could even be utilized in mourning the dead. Additionally, the Great Awakening rejuvenated the Protestant religion in various denominations throughout the colonies, including Massachusetts, where figures such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards promoted the idea that religion should be more personal and expressive, unlike formal and rigid Puritan practices.

The more conservative Puritan practices in commemorating the dead, including minimal ceremony and somber sermons, would undergo steady change over the course of the 18th century. Funerals would become crucial to the social, political and religious lives of New Englanders. The Puritan dislike of imagery appeared to fade as gravestones and jewelry would display death-heads, cherubs and willows.[3] Processions would even become highly politicized events, like for the funeral for the young Christopher Seider, killed during a non-importation protest in the North End. His funeral was attended by over 1,000 people.[4]

The practice of giving mourning gloves to friends and family along with their invitation is one of the earliest noticeable changes to the ceremony. Other such gifts included funeral scarves, cloaks, ribbons and rings. These goods “represented a collecting opportunity for attendees, who cherished the items and often passed them on to their own loved ones when they died.”[5] The pairs of gloves and rings distributed by some of the wealthiest Boston families would reach triple digits, like at the funeral of merchant Andrew Faneuil in 1738, where “hundreds of gold rings and gloves for the 1100 people in attendance” were distributed. The funeral became a social event as well as a religious one, and would only increase in size and notability by the mid-18th century. These symbols of grief became an outlet both to mourn and memorialize those who had passed, and to participate in the ever-expanding material world.

Of course, such changes in ritual didn’t occur without opposition. As early as 1721 a law was enacted that banned the use of scarves, with similar bans on other lavish gifts placed by legislators in the succeeding decades.[6] The attempt to prohibit these newer traditions reveals the controversial nature of funerary mementos and clothing. Even though many accepted the new practices, there was still a percentage of the population who desired the society established by their predecessors. The result of such inner conflict was a decrease in the amount of gifts given during funerals. Most processions by the second half of the 18th century would still contain funerary rings and other such goods, but these gifts would gain a more sentimental and personal value. For the funerary rings in particular, rather than being given to as many attendees as possible, would instead be reserved for those closest to the recently deceased.[7] These smaller gifts, often called “keepsakes” by the late 1700s, remained quite popular.

Though we do not have any written account regarding Revere’s feelings on the materialistic side of funerals, from an artisan’s point of view, the desire for such products would likely be seen as a great financial opportunity. Thanks to the extensive daybook records he meticulously kept throughout his career, we know that he made mourning rings. In 1783, Revere fulfilled an order for eight gold mourning rings for the funeral of Samuel Dunbar, a minister in the town of Canton. The ring on display at the MFA is very likely one of these eight.

The service for the highly regarded minister included a procession that went from Dunbar’s home to the church he preached at and ended at his final burial spot, all while accompanied with fellow ministers and members of his congregation.[8] It is possible that Revere was in attendance? It’s pretty difficult to say. We also don’t know who was given the rings. But what can be known is that Revere provided a keepsake that granted eight individuals a way to remember the departed Dunbar, while simultaneously being able to sport a ring that though simple, was an expensive gift, crafted by a well-known Boston artisan.

The society Paul Revere lived in in the 18th century was vastly different from that of the earliest Puritans. Traditions were challenged and changed, forming a New England that was seemingly anxious to depart from its more conservative roots. The funeral is one of many such traditions that witnessed significant change. The services being held in Paul Revere’s lifetime would likely shock many early settlers. Gloved hands carried coffins to burial sites, where gravestones with symbols of death and mourning would soon be placed. Those in attendance would listen to personal and emotional sermons, and leave with mementos to remember those who had passed. Though small in size, and seemingly minimal in detail, the mourning ring crafted by Paul Revere represents these two centuries of history.

* “ob” and “ae” are abbreviation for the Latin words for “death” and “age,” respectively.

Jay Shanahan is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House


[1] “Mourning ring – works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Accessed March 11, 2024,

[2] Phyllis Whitman Hunter, Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), 75.

[3] James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 71.

[4] Turnbull-Reilly, Adrienne. “Revere House Radio: The Life and Symbolism of Christopher Seider.” Episode. no. 3, 2020.

[5] Erin Blakemore, “Funerals Once Included Swag,” JSTOR Daily , February 18, 2018,

[6] Margaret Coffin, Death in Early America: The History and Folklore of Customs and Superstitions of Early Medicine, Funerals, Burials, and Mourning (Nelson, 1976).

[7] Steven Bullock, “‘Often Concerned in Funerals:’ Ritual, Material Culture, and the Large Funeral in the Age of Samuel Sewall,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2018,, 211.

[8] George T. Comeau, “True Tales: A Ring of the Son of Thunder,” Canton Citizen, March 10, 2011,


Works Cited:

Blakemore, Erin. “Funerals Once Included Swag.” JSTOR Daily, February 18, 2018.

Bullock, Steven. “‘Often Concerned in Funerals:’ Ritual, Material Culture, and the Large Funeral in the Age of Samuel Sewall.” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 2018.

Coffin, Margaret. Death in Early America: The history and folklore of customs and superstitions of early medicine, funerals, burials, and mourning. Nashville: Nelson, 1976.

Comeau, George T. “True Tales: A Ring of the Son of Thunder.” Canton Citizen, March 10, 2011.

Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Hunter, Phyllis Whitman. Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001.

“Mourning ring – works – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Accessed March 11, 2024.

Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A study in religion, culture, and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977.

Turnbull-Reilly, Adrienne. “Revere House Radio: The Life and Symbolism of Christopher Seider.” Episode. No. 27, 2020.