The Dead in English Urban Society c. 1689-1840
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis is predicated upon a rejection of the existing characterisation of attitudes towards the dead in the eighteenth century. In current thinking this period witnessed the first signs of a reduction in the extent to which people had contact with the dead. However, this assumption is supported by very little research. In focusing on proximity and exposure to the dead body at an ‘everyday’ level this thesis tempers the century’s association with distance and change by revealing a high level of proximity and very significant continuities with both the preceding and proceeding periods. Utilising sources from London, Bristol and York it follows the dead body from the point of death through to its eventual resting place, concentrating in particular on the impact of the newly-emerged undertaking trade and burial practice in the century and a half prior to the widespread establishment of extramural cemeteries and eventual outlawing of burial in towns. The following key questions are addressed: how were spaces shared between the living and the dead; where exactly were the dead present; who had contact with them; and in what ways. The result is a picture which demonstrates that during the long eighteenth century the living shared their private and public urban spaces with the dead to a significant extent. The attitudes governing treatment of the dead body revealed in the process are shown to be at once timeless and period-specific. Foremost among these is the concept of ‘decency’. It is shown that this idea, whilst far from unique to the eighteenth century, had a particular contemporary significance shaped by social and economic factors and their effects on the class structure and urban environment. At the same time, visible in all aspects of treatment of the dead is a pragmatism born of limitations on time and, in particular, space which did not always sit easily with notions of decency, particularly once the dead were underground.
PhD in History