Monday, March 3, 2014

On Death and Burial

Mrs. Haskins Snr., early Redcliffe pioneer. (Description supplied with photograph). Mrs. Haskins is wearing a dark coloured skirt, jacket, gloves and headscarf, which suggests she may be in mourning. She is holding an envelope in her right hand.  Courtesy of Picture Queensland.

Last Saturday I attended a seminar presented by QFHS at the Queensland Baptist's Conference Centre at Gaythorne.  Speakers included Dr Kerry Raymond, Helen Smith, and Dr Leigh Summers.  Topics included  headstones, cemeteries, death certificates and mourning customs.

Samuel Taylor's gravestone

Kerry's presentation was billed as assisting "researchers in using records connected with burial."

Kerry is probably best known for the website which has a fantastic photo collection of South East Queensland cemetery headstones.

Kerry gave us a handout with over 30 website links on it from Queensland place names to Trove and Google Maps.  She gave an engaging talk on the history of regulations and customs regarding burial and cemeteries in Queensland.  There was so much information in her talk that she had to rush through the last few slides.  Although this tended to be valuable information for first-timers in the business of grave hunting which can be obtained elsewhere.  

What did I get out of the session?  Well it confirmed for me what I suspected i.e. that there weren't any real rules or regulations until about 1856 when deaths had to be registered.  Kerry reminded us that Brisbane as we know it today is a relatively modern phenomenon and burial in the country had fewer rules.  People tended to be buried close to where they lived in the 1800s but by the 1900s, with the introduction of the railway, they could be buried with other family members or places where they had previously lived.  I also learned a new acronym NIMBY or Not In My Backyard.

I was intrigued to hear about cremation becoming legal in Queensland in 1913 and being marketed as a more "cheerful" option to burial.  You can read more about that here.

Death Certificate Harriet Rowland (nee Conner)

Helen's presentation looked at "the evolution of death certificates, advances in medical knowledge, and ....some of the pitfalls of death certificate research."

Helen gave us a great handout which covered the ins and outs of a death certificate and all it's facets as well as pointing us to great websites such as Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms and a handy guide to what is actually on a death certificate from different states in Australia and places such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

What did I get out of this session?  Well I learned that sometimes if an ancestor died in a Workhouse or Asylum, the certificate won't spell that out but may just give the address.  If you want to check addresses of workhouses go to  

Helen also encouraged us to pursue digital certificates from the Registry Office now that they are available as transcription errors can occur.  Must  put that on my To Do list.  

Helen also advised us that it wasn't until 1874 that doctors were required to give the cause of death - until then it was often the informant.  

I learned that Phossy Jaw was caused by using white phosphorous in match manufacture and Black Jaundice or Weil's Disease was from rat urine and is often found as a cause of death for banana workers.  

And I learned that countries got together and agreed that we should have standard descriptions of causes of death in 1903 and now we are up to version 10.  Who knew??

Mourning card for Margaret McLoughlin

Dr Leigh Summers presentation was entitled Jet is black but it also sparkles.    It  looked "at the role of widows' weeds worn by the Victorian middle-class."

This was a very different presentation to those of the previous two speakers.  Dr Summers showed us often confronting portraits of mourning from the Victorian era.  She asserted that Prince Albert's death in 1862 gave birth to mourning practices with associated industries providing costume, jewellery and stationery to support those practices.  Young girls were encouraged to create works of art celebrating mourning or a loved one through embroidery, painting or craft, often featuring the hair of one departed.  

Here is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1874 talking about the etiquette of mourning

It seems somewhat ghoulish to us now but Dr Summers reminded us that death was ever present in those days, without the benefits of modern medicine, antibiotics and the like.  

What did I get out of this session?  The importance of pictures for presentations.  So much can be said in a picture where words fail us.  I learned about the importance of jet, where it came from (Whitby)  and how it was polished depending on the stage of mourning.  I learned that seed pearls were a symbol of tears and that during the Civil War there were bottles created especially for the collection of the tears of the widows - heartbreaking stuff.  I learned that the widows were obliged to wear veils often to their feet and that the dyes in the veils often hurt their eyes.

Here's an amazing photo of widows walking in the desolate landscape of the ruins of Richmond 1865.

Thank you to Thiophene Guy from Flickr and the Library of Congress

All in all the morning's seminar was well worth attending and gave me plenty of food for thought.  Thank you to my society QFHS and the education committee for making it happen.

Other seminars planned include :

7 June

2 August 

To book go here.  

I, for one, can't wait!  See you there!


Kristin said...

Are the man and boy in the foreground ghosts? They seem to be transparent to me. That is such a desolate photograph. I think I will look into death and mourning customs today.

Alex Daw said...

Kristin I found this talk intriguing. That man and boy do look like ghosts don't they? I found the bit about creating jewellery or adornments e.g. belts from human hair kind of grisly but fascinating....a keepsake indeed.

diane b said...

Glad you found something interesting to attend and enjoy. I have other things on my mind just now but I would like to pursue this area one day.