The Changing Face of Death

The paper summarised in this blog, and another on a different topic that was written around the same time, were originally intended to be sent to journals for publication – after five years of retirement I felt able once again to resume my career long warfare with journal editors and referees. However reading the journal author guides quickly made me change my mind, and I decided simply to mount the papers on this website. This has advantages in that doing so is good for my blood pressure and state of mind, and also allows for immediate dissemination of what has been written, but also disadvantages, in that the papers have not been tested by peer review and, as I am possibly the world’s worst proof reader, no doubt have significant numbers of typographical errors. Readers will come to their own views as to whether my approach has been the correct one.


This post links to a paper that analyses the burial registers of St Michael’s church in Lichfield over a 200-year period from 1813 to 2012, together with the memorial inscriptions for that period found on graves in the churchyards. It is written in a deliberately academic style, which probably restricts its audience somewhat, and is very technical and statistical in its approach. Indeed, it is based on a collated spreadsheet analysis of all burial register entries, grave location records and monumental inscriptions.  It summary, the analysis shows that over the first 150 years of the study period there was a remarkable stability in interment and funerary practices, but in the final 50 years there was a very major change. We will consider these in outline in this post, but full details can of course be found in the paper.

Over the 200 year period, the age profile of those interred changed in accordance with national trends, with a marked reduction in infant death rates, and an increase in deaths in the older age ranges – see figure 1 for female deaths for example.

Figure 1. Female interments by age 1813-2012

The biggest change to occur in the study period has been the change from burial to cremation as the major mode of interment – the national and St Michael’s percentage are sown in figure 2. It can be seen that St Michael’s lags significantly behind the national trend, not least because proper arrangements were not made for the interment of ashes until 1979 when a Cremated Remains area was set out.

Figure 2 National and local percentage of cremations

The interval between death and interment was remarkably stable up until the 1950s, with a 50th percentile value of 3 to 4 days, and a 90th percentile value of 6 to 7 days (figure 3). However in the 1960s, these values began to increase., and by 2012 the 50th percentile of the interval between death and burial was 12 days, and between death and interment of ashes following cremation was 41 days. It is conjectured in the paper that this increase for both burials and interments.  has been driven by the need to arrange a time for the crematorium service.  These changes have profound effects on the nature of the mourning process. By the time of the funeral the families have passed through the first acute stage of grief and have become much more active in planning and conducting the funeral itself.

Figure 3. 50th and 90th percentiles of intervals between death and burial (1813-2012), interment of ashes (1960-2012) and cremation (2001-2012)

Associated with this, the percentage of graves with headstones or other monuments has increased significantly since the 1960s, from around 20% of al interments up till then, to around 90% by 2012 (figure 4). The nature these inscriptions has changed too, with family relationships becoming the primary subject.

Figure 4. Percentage of graves with monuments in both churchyards 1813-2012

Taken together, I argue in the paper that the data is consistent with earlier work by others that indicates the focus of interments and funerals has moved away from concentrating on the Christian message of resurrection and eternal life, towards celebration of the life of the deceased, primarily in the context of the family.

The paper

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s