The mourning after...

The mourning after...

Death was a much more daily reality for our ancestors, and few people could expect to live beyond their 40s. Neil Hallows explores common causes of and attitudes to the end of life

Neil Hallows, medical journalist

Neil Hallows

medical journalist

The three centuries of human death from the 17th to the 20th are bookended with a degree of historical certainty.

We know a lot about the vicious little bug that carried away thousands in the plagues of the early 17th century, and more still about the machine guns of the Great War.

In between, it can be hard to figure out the circumstances in which an individual died, or even what claimed the lives of most of the population.

The sources before the beginnings of civil registration in 1837, often range from the brief (‘age’) to the fanciful (‘visitation from God’).

With the Victorians came both a flood of data, and a rigour in its interpretation. The classification of diseases was firmed up and annual reports showed the most dangerous ages to be, jobs to hold and places in which to live.

The killers without rival, right through to the early 20th century, were infectious diseases. Between 1848 and 1872 they caused 1 in 3 deaths (the figure is now around 1 in 200) and, of these, a third were respiratory tuberculosis. Others in this group included diphtheria, scarlet fever and typhoid.

Respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia, came next. Cancer killed far fewer than it does now, mainly because the other illnesses had already struck first.

Although we lack data of the same standard, there seems little doubt that more people died of infectious diseases than any other cause in the previous centuries as well. The 1665 plague carried off an estimated 68,000 Londoners, more than one in seven.

The tomb of Thomas Sackville
The tomb of Thomas Sackville (who died age 13 in 1677) at Withyham in Sussex shows a good example of the 'serene deathbed school’, showing his grief-stricken parents at his side

A ‘general bill of christenings and burials’ from 1754, one of many sporadically collated from parish registers from the 16th century onwards, attributed more than 4,000 of London’s annual 22,000 deaths to consumption (TB), almost 3,000 to various fevers, and 2,300 to smallpox.

These diseases impacted especially heavily on children. Between 1838 and 1854, 16% of boys and 13% of girls died in the first year of life (the figure is now less than 0.5 per cent in the UK), with a further 11% of each dying by the age of five. In cities like Manchester and Liverpool the figure was much higher.

It was this that kept life expectancy in the 40s – and as low as 25 in some cities – until the end of the 19th century. But those who reached 20 could on average survive to 60. ‘Three score and ten’ was an ambitious target, but not unreachable. There were still plenty of old people.

A deathbed scene from Romeo and Juliet, by late 18th century artist John Ople

Virtually all manual jobs used to be more dangerous than they are now, but some stood out as dangerous even at the time. Miners and labourers, predictably, died in greater numbers on average but those in the alcohol trade seemed to fare even worse. In the 1855 report on births, deaths and marriages in England they had the highest mortality and the registrar-general George Graham asked whether it was due to the unusual temptations they faced. This gave a propaganda coup to temperance organisations. But Graham said inn-keepers’ constant exposure to a diseased public was another likely factor.

Butchers also died young, which Graham ascribed to an unbalanced diet and diseases from animal carcasses.

The presence of death in these centuries was constant, but the way in which it was marked and viewed was not.

In the 17th century, as in the Middle Ages, there were books about ‘dying well’ – an appropriate state of tranquil acceptance and rapture at the heavenly reward to come. The concept somewhat fell out of fashion during the 18th century Enlightenment only to experience a strong revival under the influence of evangelical Christianity in the mid-19th century.

Little Nell’s death in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), as well as being more drawn out than many Victorian lives, embodies this ideal: Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born, imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.

There was to be no raging against the dying of the light.

In the quest for a ‘good death’, TB was the winning ticket, as its relatively slow progress allowed the subject time to connect with God. Pre-Raphaelite painters and Verdi, in La Traviata (1853), portrayed victims as noble, passive, young women.

But perhaps a stronger influence than religion on the way death was commemorated were the sharp elbows of the middle classes.

The new cemeteries, built in many cities from the 1830s because of graveyard overcrowding, enabled an obsession with social status among a newly wealthy class to continue beyond the grave. Removed from church control, enough funds could ensure a burial fit for a pharaoh – literally in the case of Highgate in London, where an ‘Egyptian Avenue’ was created.

Even before the new cemeteries allowed people the freedom to spend ostentatiously, there were demands of custom that could prove expensive. The diary of an 18th century shopkeeper from Sussex reveals that, after a fairly ordinary funeral, 60 pairs of gloves were handed out as gifts to mourners. Biscuits were a cheaper alternative, their wrappers bearing a eulogy to the person who died.

The poor tried, but struggled, to keep up. Desperate to avoid a pauper’s burial, as a result of pride and an 1832 law which allowed anatomists to dissect those who died in this manner, they paid ruinous and inflated sums. An 1843 report, which concluded £4 million was annually thrown into the grave at the expense of the living helped tackle profiteering undertakers. By 1894 The Lancet reported that a good funeral could be had for £10, whereas generations earlier families had spent several times the sum. Millions belonged to ‘burial clubs’ to save for their funerals.

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The Company of Undertakers, by William Hogarth
The Company of Undertakers, by William Hogarth

Throughout the period, people tended to die at home and stay at home until they were buried. In an 1852 report, the prominent public health doctor John Simon expressed concern that in many homes, for more than a week after death, the sides of a wooden coffin, often imperfectly joined, are at best all that divides the decomposition of the dead from the respiration of the living. Whole communities could come to ‘pay their respects’ during this time, and photographs of the corpse were often handed out as souvenirs.

The period of mourning after death was always a sensitive topic. With a nod to contemporary bad behaviour, the satirical Town and Country Magazine in 1769 suggested grieving husbands should hold out for three weeks before taking another lover and heirs refrain from gleefully planning their new country houses until after their benefactors’ funerals.

At the other extreme, Queen Victoria’s 40 years in black after the death of her husband Prince Albert was regarded by many as excessive at the time, but it helped influence a culture of long and formally prescribed mourning.

We still recognise many of the Victorian attitudes towards death, but the fact we do not share them is in large part due to the First World War.

Traditional religious beliefs were challenged in the face of inexplicable slaughter, the prospect of thousands of women wearing black for months or years was seen as a drain on morale, and it was impossible to repatriate most of the soldiers who had fallen overseas.

The dignified and very radical manner in which soldiers were buried in France and Belgium, with identical markers irrespective of class or rank, made Highgate’s marble mausolea of bankers and lawyers suddenly seem rather tacky. The weeping angels could no longer compete.

The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner
The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, by Edwin Landseer (1837)

Buried Alive

Buried alive – now there’s a good source of nightmares. During times of mass burial, and before doctors understood anything about coma, there were a number of cases.

The medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was reputedly found outside his coffin, and with bloody hands, when his tomb was reopened, in what appeared to be a doomed escape attempt.

The fear of premature burial – fed by Victorian-era fright-merchants such as Edgar Allan Poe – far outweighed the risk of it actually happening. Nevertheless, a number of ingenious patents included ‘safety coffins’ with bells and breathing tubes, and coffin lids were sometimes locked – a key left with the body – rather than nailed down.

Timeline: Death

The worst year, according to population historians, for deaths above the expected trend (43%) in the whole 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Bubonic plague was mostly responsible.
Anglican bishop Jeremy Taylor published The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, an influential work on how to prepare for death.
The Great Plague, the last great epidemic of bubonic plague in England. 18th century General bills of christenings and burials, collated from parish records and giving a crude idea of causes of death, became bestsellers as they gave some warning of new epidemics.
Edward Jenner developed a vaccine against smallpox, although it would be decades before it had a mass impact on survival rates.
Legislation allows for the building of new cemeteries, alleviating pressure on overcrowded urban graveyards.
Beginning of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in England and Wales.
John Snow traces an outbreak of cholera in London to a contaminated water supply, leading to the first successful attempts to track and combat mass-mortality epidemics.
London’s new sewerage system opened, improving hygiene, and reducing death from waterborne diseases.

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