—“Mira Wheeler was buried today. We went down to the funeral to the meetinghouse. E.L. Stiles went, too.” (26 Nov. 1852)
—“I went to old Mr. Macomber’s funeral up to Orsemua Steward’s. I took the corpse over on Ball Hill. Misses Horton died last night.” (20 Feb. 1854)
—“Mary Boothe, Evaline Macomber, Vol. Barber and I sat up to Mr. Thayer’s. Mrs. Thayer was buried.” (12 Feb. 1856)
Death, an inevitable part of life, was something that Sheffield Peabody witnessed many times. His diaries record the passing of others at all times of the year, yet by tradition winter is the season of our mortality—and it was common for him to mention the death of “Old Mr. Steward,” “Old Misses Higgins,” and “Granny McIntire” as if it were very natural. Whether someone was a close friend or not (“Liger Wetmore’s wife”), it seems that Sheffield records the events as an act of respect to those who had died: they were important people who were worth writing about, if only for a brief moment in one of the days in his journals.
With every person’s passing, a funeral would take place within a couple of days because embalming was uncommon until later in the century. Care of the dead has become so professionalized—New York state law requires a funeral director to sign off at every stage—that it is difficult to envision how DIY it was during Sheffield’s time. The body of the deceased would be washed and changed into clean clothing. Younger people sometimes would “sit up with” the corpse overnight to ensure its integrity, and during the day family friends would stop by the home to pay their respects. Several times we can see that Sheffield has been called upon to transport the casket to a cemetery—for example, the one recorded as “Ball Hill” in his journal and now called “Bald Hill.” What all of this tells us is that his small community depended upon mutual aid during times of grief.
Sheffield does not go into a lot of detail as to what he thinks or feels about these deaths; their meaning emerges from the repetition of his actions...we’d call it being there for somebody. Even when it comes to his own parents we can only infer his sentiments, as when he mentions the anniversary of his mother’s death on October 16. When his father, William Peabody, died on Christmas day in 1859 of complications from tuberculosis, his funeral was preached by Elder Welton and the body buried in the nearby Christian Church Cemetery. By the next day, December 28, life necessarily continued: “Thermometer 4 degrees below, this morning. I went over to the sawmill.” The following summer (6 July 1860), Sheffield “took father's tombstones to the burying ground and set them up, and went to the valley.”