Death is something that has happened to all but our most recent ancestors however it is often a vital event that is ignored by family historians. Records of birth and marriage are avidly sought as they form the building blocks of the family tree. Death or burial records might only be resorted to when an age at death is needed as a clue to a date of birth. We really should kill off our ancestors (in the nicest possible way) not least because this helps to ensure that we have been tracing the correct person, not someone who died as an infant. In England and Wales we have, from 1837, death certificates. The current £9.25 cost from the General Register Office makes researchers think twice about their purchase but they can be a source of interesting detail about the individual concerned. Apart from the obvious date and place of death, age, address and occupation of the deceased, there is the name and address of the informant, together with their relationship, if any, to the person who has died. This may provide the first clue to the married surname of a daughter. If the informant is not a relative but an official from a workhouse or nursing home, for example, then the details they have provided may be less likely to be accurate. Of course if you are fortunate enough to have an ancestor who died in Australia, then their death certificates are even more informative.
Then there is the all important cause of death. If the individual died in an accident, as was frequently the case in the pre health and safety era, then there may be a coroner’s record or a newspaper report giving details. If your ancestor died of an illness then what were the symptoms and likely treatments at the time? Did they die as a result of surgery or in an outbreak of infectious disease? Prior to the advent of death certificates we are less likely to know how an individual died but we can still examine the common killers of the time. Consider not only illness and disease but those who might have died in wartime, of famine, in childbirth or as a result of suicide or murder.
One of the presentations that I give is about death and its causes. I range from cholera to chlorosis, small pox to syphilis, typhoid to TB, puerperal fever to plague. On the subject of the plague there has been a recent media splash suggesting that the fleas on rats were not responsible for the Black Death. To begin with it was not called the Black Death until centuries afterwards – rather The Great Pestilence. Secondly the idea that plague might be pneumonic (airborne) rather than bubonic (the fleas on rats scenario) is far from being new. Even the school text book that I was using to teach the history of medicine over a decade ago acknowledged that the 1348 outbreak was probably so severe that it must have been a combination of the pneumonic and bubonic strains.
Our ancestors’ deaths are part of our family history. We need to understand how they may have died, the course that their illness may have taken, even if it saddens us to realise that today this might not have been fatal.
For a list of epidemics in Britain see the website of Keighley and District Family History Society. Useful books include Tracing your Ancestors through Death Records by Celia Heritage (Pen and Sword 2013) and How Our Ancestors Died Simon Wills (Pen and Sword 2013).