Monday, October 03, 2011

Morbid musings

When walking through a graveyard the other week (there's not much else in the way of green space round where I live) I noticed that there are distinct patterns to the demographics of the dead. Obviously, death can strike at any time, but if you plotted all the dates on a graph you'd see some obvious spikes emerging.

The first, obviously, is that of those that died in infancy or childhood. This demographic is most strongly represented in the old 19th century section of the graveyard. From the dates on the stones it would appear that, as a general rule, if you lived past about 10 without catching something horrific then you were pretty much safe for at least the next eight years. One interesting thing I noticed was that while this demographic is far less common in the newer sections of the graveyard, the average age seems to have dropped. Children below the age of one are a pretty rare sight in the older sections, while they make up the majority of pre-18 year-old graves in the newer sections.

As a reflection of changing social attitudes I find this interesting -- as infant mortality drops, people seem to become emotionally invested in their children at a much younger age. In some cases this tendency is taken to a stage that makes me a little uneasy -- there's a few modern graves in the cemetery whose stones record the names of infants who died two or three days after birth. I get the impression that the victorians would have classified these sad events as unusually drawn out stillbirths and moved quickly on, probably without ever giving the infants a name. These modern graves, however, are covered with flowers and cards -- something that I'd find understandable if it wasn't for the fact that the most recent of them records a death that happened more than 6 years ago. In a particularly morbid touch, some of the graves have flowers whose notes are signed by not only parents but also by "your little brother" or "your little sister."

The next big demographic is young men between the ages of 17 and 25, whose deaths are generally recorded on small white stones, decorated with just a cross or a regimental crest. The majority are from the First World War era*, a testament to the mind-numbing carnage of that war. With each coming year these stones disturb me more -- I'm now about seven years older than those kids were when they died, and can't help but think of 18-year-olds as essentially big children.

The last demographic spike before old age is populated by young women between the ages of 20 and 30. The cause of death isn't often mentioned on gravestones, but it's not hard to imagine what caused this. Happily this demographic almost completely vanishes in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine.

The thing that makes me particularly troubled by the deaths of these women is the fact that they are often buried in family plots with their parents, grandparents, etc. Every now and then you'll come across a woman buried in her own grave, usually beneath a touchingly inscribed gravestone composed by her husband, but these are the exceptions. On most occasions the men involved seem to have been all too happy to hand the mortal remains of their former loved ones to the in-laws with all the respect and reverence of someone returning a broken TV to the shop.