Like many novices, I suppose, when I first became interested in family history I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for deaths. It was some time before I realised that the when/where and how of a person’s dying could tell me a lot about both them, and their family (especially in conjunction with other information about say family)
Death is the one certain fact of life for all of us, and each person’s passing will affect the rest of the family.
Before the event of the welfare state, for example, when a man died and left his widow with young children, there was little alternative for her than to find another husband pretty quickly. In purely practical terms, if she wanted her children to survive, let alone thrive, then she had to find someone who could (and was willing) to support her and her offspring.
Death certificates can hold a lot of information that you might not otherwise find out about your ancestors – their last address (providing they died at home); who registered the death and whether or not they were present at the death; cause of death, often with a duration of the illness. There are some fascinating descriptions given, and sometimes detail that an inquest has been held. This is always worth following up, as inquest reports are often published in the local newspapers.
I think the first really useful death certificate that I bought was for my great grandfather; The death certificate said the he had died in a ditch on the day after boxing day in 1916, on his way back home from the local pub. My initial reaction was that he’d maybe had one too many jars of ale, and lost his footing.
How wrong could I have been! The death, and subsequent inquest, was reported in the local newspaper. The landlord of the pub had asserted that great granddad had indeed been very sober when he had left the pub. His reason for being there in the first place seems to have been divvying up the proceeds of a savings scheme, and he had set off home on his bicycle, in heavy fog. At one point along the route, there ha been no fencing at the side of the ditch, and it seems that he had fallen in at this point.
One anomaly in my direct line relates to a second great grandfather. He had been born in 1845. His birth certificate names his father as my third great grandfather’s husband, which is interesting, because she had been widowed some six years by the time the child was born!
There are, of course, some intensely sad death certificates. I have one great uncle, who I only discovered last year. He had been born in the workhouse, after the 1901 census, died of measles and pneumonia, before the 1911 census. An older brother had died at the age of ten months prior to the 1901 census. What sad, deprived lives these two little ones must have led. This was accentuated when seen in the context of both surviving brothers being taken away from the family and sent away as British Home Children, despite both parents still being alive.
Learning more about the ‘where’ associated with family deaths tells us a lot about their movements about the country (and sometimes abroad) whilst a headstone hunt often reinforces what we think we know about families financial circumstances. The trip that I made into Wolverhampton to visit the graves of Mum’s branch of the family resulted largely in pictures of plots of grass. Most had been buried in paupers gives, and those who had their own plot didn’t aspire to a headstone. So very sad to learn that those people of whom you have a detailed picture in your head, have been able to leave nothing physical behind for future generations to remember them by.
My family tree isn’t spectacular, it’s a chronicle of what I am able to find out about what is really a very ordinary family. Nonetheless, I have found a cluster of deaths from typhoid, a young man who fell out of a walnut tree and died what sounds like a very nasty death a few days later, and a second great grandfather is as elusive in death as he was at birth.
Next time’s genealogy blog will concentrate on letter E – let’s hope it’s a bit less depressing than this one 😉