Essential Reading

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Monday, 2 April 2012

On His Death Bed

His Final Moments

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article was first pubished in the now obsolete Practical Family History]

As their death certificates show, most of our Victorian and early twentieth-century ancestors died at home in their own beds. With high infant mortality rates and many people succumbing to infectious diseases well before old age, death of loved ones was a very frequent occurrence in family life – something to be participated in and shared rather than hidden away on the hospital ward. In the certain belief that they would be judged in heaven for their conduct on earth, many of our forefathers sought to make a ‘good death,’ as far as possible, with all the preparation this entailed.

The Sick Room

What we know about the environment of death in the Victorian period comes mainly from advice books. A sick room should be warm and should attract a plentiful supply of sunshine and air. Drafts were to be avoided at all costs. As in most aspects of Victorian life, there were rules and regulations to adhere to in the sick room. Creaking shoes and rustling gowns should be avoided. People should be quiet, but should not necessarily need to tiptoe or whisper. The patient’s condition should never be discussed in his presence. If the fire required making up whilst the patient was asleep, newspaper was recommended as a quieter alternative to coals.

Other recommended furniture for the sick room included a screen to keep out the light and a couch onto which the patient could be lifted whilst the bed was being made. It was recommended that a bedpan be provided and that it should be taken out of the room and washed regularly. Medicine bottles were to be kept out of sight and any ointments or liniments placed in a separate area. The floor of the sick room should have rugs that could be ‘taken up at a moment’s notice and be swept and shaken in the open air.’ Bedding should consist of a spring mattress and ‘good overlay.’ Feather beds were to be avoided as they were thought to harbour dust.

Any nourishment given to the patient was to be daintily served and in small quantities so as to be easily digested. It was deemed important to keep food out of the sickroom, especially when a patient was suffering from a disease such as typhoid fever that could potentially be contracted by other members of the family through contaminated food.

As all this shows, Victorian advice writers had very definite ideas about how a sick room should look and how it ought to be equipped. Of course, it is impossible to know how closely this advice was followed. Working-class people were largely illiterate before the Education Act of 1870: and many people would not have been able to read advice books even if they could have afforded them. In addition, most homes were not large enough to accommodate separate sick rooms. Nevertheless, advice volumes can give us some idea of what was commonly thought to constitute good practice.

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Last Days

The Victorian deathbed was not a place of solitude. Quite the reverse. It was usual for all members of the immediate family to join the nurse periodically at the bedside and to take an active part at the end. They would hold the hand of the patient, soothe and pet him, and read psalms or poetry. When Branwell Bronte died on the 24th September 1848, his whole family including his three sisters and his father, were around him. Love, sorrow and faith were all openly expressed in ways that would seem perhaps overindulgent to us today.

During a patient’s last days, if at all possible, he was expected to sort out various aspects of his life. This included the distribution of his worldly goods and instructions for his own funeral. Before ex- Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone died in May 1898, he asked to see each of his servants in turn - no doubt to convey some final words of thanks and wisdom.

The Last Hours

Dying persons were encouraged to bear their pain and suffering with fortitude and to look forward to the afterlife. If the sick person was an Anglican or a Non-conformist (Baptist, Methodist, Unitarian etc), he was increasingly expected to make his own peace with God at the end. Clergymen were present less often at the death in the nineteenth century than they had been in previous ages. But there were, of course, some deathbed conversions, where the dying person requested the presence of a priest and embraced the Catholic Church. For confirmed Catholics, the deathbed was the place for a final confession to be made and for the final sacrament to be taken. This was supposed to take place once the patient had accepted that death was inevitable but before they were too ‘far gone’ not to understand what they were doing.

A patient’s last words were also considered to be very important, showing his or her fitness for salvation. Queen Victoria’s last words (‘Oh that peace may come! Bertie!’) unsurprisingly made reference to her dead husband Prince Albert whom she had mourned for nearly forty years. The writer Lewis Carroll was more practical, ‘Take away those pillows, I shall need them no more,’ whilst intellectual wit Oscar Wilde retained a dry humour, ‘I am dying as I have lived. Beyond my means.’ Sometimes, in the knowledge that a memorable last speech was expected, patients composed something fitting ready for the occasion. At other times, where the dying person was too weak or delirious to think clearly, relatives would try to elicit something appropriate by asking questions. Patients were occasionally refused drugs at the end in an effort to assist them to talk more clearly: it was always hoped that they would say something profound or enlightening.

Immediately After Death

After death the nurse or neighbour in attendance would ‘lay’ out the corpse. The body would be undressed, washed and re-clothed in a shroud, pennies would be placed on the eyelids to keep them closed and the body would be ‘arranged.’ When the body of Doctor James Barry was attended on July 25th 1865, his charwoman, Sophia Bishop, let out a scream. Despite the doctor’s wish that he should be buried in the clothes he had died in, Sophia removed them and realised that he had harboured a great secret throughout his life. He was in fact a woman!

It was common for family and neighbours to be invited in to the house to view the body prior to its transferral to a coffin. The corpse might remain in the house from anything between five and eleven days. As doctor John Simon remarked in 1852 (in a report on burials in the city of London), this didn’t really matter in a rich man’s house where the body could be kept in a lead coffin in a room away from the family, but in a poor man’s house, there was great cause for concern: ’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.’

A few Victorians kept deathbed memorials (detailed diary accounts) of how their relations had died. But, it was more common for the story of the final moments - in all their gory detail - to be circulated among family members by word of mouth or by letter. Of especial interest to those who had not been there, were accounts of deathbed visions, moments of pre-mortem clarity and the smiles of ecstasy that may have accompanied the actual moments of death.

After all this, of course, began the elaborate ritual of mourning which, depending on the wealth of the family, potentially involved paintings and photographs of the corpse, the making of death masks and the taking of hair for mourning jewellery. The Victorian etiquettes of bereavement advised the wearing of black-ribboned underwear, jet jewellery and top-to-toe black clothing for up to two years after the death.  There was nothing a dying man could do to ensure that he was properly mourned. Little wonder, therefore, that so many directed their attentions to making a ‘good death.’

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

Useful Books

Bailin, Miriam, The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill,  Cambridge Books Online, 2009.

Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death, Sutton Press, 2004.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003.

Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jupp, Peter, and Gittings, Clare, Death in England: An Illustrated History. MUP, 1999.

Useful Websites On the life and death of William Ewart Gladstone. On the life and death of Branwell Bronte

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, British Isles, UK, England, English, death, death certificate

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