For much of the colonial era, death was a domestic affair. Instead of hospitals, senior homes, or hospices, people more often died at home, leaving family members to manage the body and arrange for a funeral service. Who did what was often decided on the basis of gender.
Women were often tasked with caregiving. After someone’s death, that meant cleaning and dressing the body, a duty that could include both immediate family and community members like neighbors and the local midwife. They would have also prepared clothes for the burial, including a loose, open-backed garment commonly called a shroud, as well as more common clothing items like stockings and soft shoes. In more urban areas, women might even work as quasi-professional layers out of the dead. Women would also typically be expected to take part in funeral processions and put together a meal and drinks for the living who attended services and wakes.
Meanwhile, men would have gotten to work crafting the coffin, a simple container that was often put together by a local carpenter or cabinet maker. While woodworking was very much a male-dominated field, so, too, was the religious side of things. From church caretakers known as sextons to the minister conducting the service, men would have taken on the public religious duties necessary at a funeral. They would have also taken on much of the physical labor, such as digging the grave and transporting the coffin from church to burying ground.