‘Our dear departed’: guest speaker Maureen Hambrecht

Ron Pullan

October 5, 2002

Wakefield and District Family History Society

How society has dealt with mortal remains in the past: as the nineteenth century progressed it was becoming obvious that the local churchyards could no longer cope in the growing towns and cities.

A meeting was held on Saturday the 5th October when the guest speaker was Maureen Hambrecht. Her topic “Our dear departed” dealt with death and how our society dealt with the mortals remains of those who had died in the past.

Churchyard headstones abound with euphemisms for death such as “passed on; passed away or passed through.”

Reasons for death were described in language that we would find strange today. For example parish registers might indicate that the deceased had “decayed by nature” or “decayed by evil.” Accidental deaths were “visitations by God.” While laudanum was sometimes used with disastrous consequences when used in order to keep babies quiet and not with the intention of killing a child.

The main causes of death, according to a Leeds Health Report in the nineteenth century, were from small pox, measles, scarlatina, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, convulsions, pneumonia and bronchitis.

Last words or supposed last words of the dying often have an amusing ring to them. Lord Palmerston “Die, my dear doctor, that’s the last thing I want to do.” Or George VI “How is the Empire?” A general in the American civil war was told to keep his head below the parapet to which he responded “Nonsense they couldn’t hit an elephant from this dis……”

Churchyards have been used for burials for over a thousand years. The church being in the middle so that those entering the church would be for ever reminded of their own mortality.

The south side near to the church was first used then the east, the west and then the north. [The latter being in the shadow of the church was where the devil lurked].

Suicides, however, were often buried at crossroads for it was thought that suicides walked after death and so being buried in such a place would confuse the spirit of the the deceased so that they wouldn’t know the way home.

Coffins became more commonly used by the 1800’s before that a woollen shroud would be used. The body would be rested at the lychgate where it was inspected to ensure wool was used and not other material or a fine of £5 could be levied. [Protection of the wool trade?].

Funerals for the rich would often be sumptuous affairs but for the poor a paupers or a common grave was the result. A plot could hold ten or more bodies in order to economise. As recent as 1911 in Leeds a report noted how the insurance taken out by the deceased was 1s 9d short of the overall cost and that members of the family had to pay the difference and went short of food for the next two weeks.

As the nineteenth century progressed it was becoming obvious that the local churchyards could no longer cope in the growing towns and cities. Private cemetaries and then corporation ones were created.

Headstones are often a valuable source for family and local historians. The earliest that might exist are from the seventeenth century and could be highly decorative and have verses that were often sad but often humourous. For example one such “Opened my eyes to take a peak, didn’t like it so went to sleep.”

Scottish headstones are often informative carrying several names of women with their maiden names. Occupations are also sometimes given along with the address of the deceased.

The growing popularity of cremations has meant that headstones will become fewer although churchyards and cemetaries will carry small memorial stones.

Once again Maureen Hambrecht delivered a very enjoyable talk that informed as well as entertained.

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