26 Sep Mysteries and Revelations – 1736 Josiah Dennis Manse Museum’s Coffin Spoon
What is the history behind this spoon?
The 1736 Josiah Dennis Manse Museum has contributed the utensil to the Cape Cod Museum of Art’s Mysteries and Revelations Exhibition, which you can visit through November.
It is known as a “coffin” spoon, which was given to caregivers who nursed the dying. Sometimes, they also were hung on cradles for infants to chew on when they were teething.
An account from the museum:
Reverend Josiah Dennis was the first minister of the Second Parish of Yarmouth, ordained 1727. He served the parish for 36 years until his death in 1763 at age 67. In 1793, the town of Dennis was incorporated and named after the reverend.
Josiah, a young Harvard graduate, came to Yarmouth in 1727 having just lost his fiancé. While attending a school for minister’s wives in Boston, she became sick and died.
Two years later he married a young widow named Bathsheba and they had six children, three of whom died as infants.
Bathsheba died in 1745 at age 44, and Josiah then married twice-widowed Phebe. They had two daughters, both of whom die at age 1 and age 13.
Before the reverend died in 1763, Dennis buried a fiance, a first wife and six children.
Reverend Nathan Stone, also a Harvard graduate, was ordained in 1764 as the second minister of the Second Parish of Yarmouth. He boarded with the widow Phebe Dennis and her stepdaughters at what is now called the Josiah Dennis Manse.
He married Molly Cushing in 1765, and they both lived with Widow Dennis while their house was being built by the people of the parish. Their first son Nathan Jr. was born in the Manse and the family moved into their new home when he was only one month old.
Hannah Dunster, daughter of Josiah and Bathsheba, died in 1766 at age 36 leaving a husband and young daughter in Harwich. Two more daughters of Josiah and Bathsheba died in 1767 – Abigail in January at age 33 and Jane in July at age 30. Their wills mention that the women were “weak in body” and “weak and low in condition.”
Memorial spoons, presentation spoons, mourning spoons, coffin spoons are some of the names given to engraved spoons presented as a token of gratitude or an expression of memory of the deceased.
Larger pieces of silve, such as communion cups, beakers, cans or tankards, were given to the church sometimes with the minister’s name also engraved.
Most spoons were engraved on the front stem or handle with the name of the deceased and the death date.
This spoon exhibited at Mysteries and Revelations is engraved on the back tip of the handle with “Mrs Jane Dennis to Nathan Stone 1767” as well as the image of an hourglass.
The spoon has no engraver’s mark.
It was given to the Dennis Historical Society in 1987, to be exhibited at the Manse, by Alison Stone Kennedy and Sheila Stone Howes, descendants of Nathan Stone.
Research for a recent Manse exhibit of 18th century funeral practices showed that coffin spoons may have been given in appreciation for hospice care during a person’s last days. Whether Reverend Stone gave spiritual care or hospice care to Jane Dennis is not known. Nathan and Molly Stone had a close relationship with the Dennis family for several years.
The image of the hourglass as a unique engraving on the back of this silver spoon is a symbol of mortality, the passage of time, the cycle of life and death and the soul’s travel from earth to heaven.
As one part empties of sand another part fills.
“I sleep, but my heart waketh” (Song of Sol, 5:2).
Why the family thought to add this hourglass to the engraving of appreciation is a mystery. Any symbolic engraving is rare, but a death’s head would have been more common. It is such a poignant reminder of a young life’s end combined with a statement of gratitude.