London in Tears: Grief and Collective Mourning in the Bills of Mortality

“London might be said to be all in tears; the mourners did not go about the streets indeed, for nobody put on black or made a formal dress of mourning for their nearests friends; but the voice of mourners was truly heard in the Streets” (Defoe, 19). Although Daniel Defoe’s description of London during the outbreak of 1665-1666 jogs our memories during the early days of the Sars-CoV- 2 virus—where the sick passed away separated from their loved ones, and families were forced to say goodbye apart from their kin—the culture of grief has indeed changed. This blog post examines grief as a vehicle for the exploration of some aspects of the death culture in early Modern England. The experiences of grief and mourning shed light on both the idea of loss at an individual level, and on changing commemorative and memorial practices in England during the eighteenth-century.

Grief is a complex set of emotions and thoughts that, according to the cultural anthropologist and scholar of collective grief, Richard Wilshousen, “may take years or even decades to work through”(Wilshusen 2018). The process of grief may begin with shock and denial, to then cycle through stages of anger, depression and, eventually, acceptance. But grief over the loss of a loved one might lead to a sudden death. Several studies have shown that the distress caused by the loss of a significant other is associated with cardiovascular dysfunction and with a higher risk of stroke and heart attacks. However, when death occurs in the face of deep grief, the primary medical cause of a deadly bereavement becomes incidental. Death appears as a mirror of the innermost life; a window to the self that exhibits signs of a pain so profound that it ends up being impossible to assuage. No historically situated mourning ritual seems capable of coping with extreme sorrow.

Grief is listed as a cause of death in the London Bills of Mortality. Data extracted from the bills shows that severe grief took the lives of at least eighteen people between 1700 and 1705. Similar data from 1668-1679 indicates that nineteenth individuals passed away due to the aftermaths of deep anguish produced by the death of a loved one. Although the circumstances surrounding these deaths will remain a mystery to us, the emotional distress suffered by the deceased due to excessive sorrow must have been well known by their communities. The availability of this information for the searchers of the dead—impoverished or elderly women working for the parish clerks—was a necessary condition for the reporting of grief as the main cause of death, in the absence of any other evident cue. Grief may help understand “the paradoxical position of the searchers of the dead”: their condition as “credible members of the parish[es]” and, simultaneously, “among the most marginal inhabitants” of their communities”(Munkhoff 2002, 22). If that is the case, communities played an important role not only in accompanying the mourners, but also in establishing the fatal circumstances in which bereavement led to death.

At a collective level, mourning plays an important social role in keeping societies adjoined. Human rituals around death and dying, ranging from mortuary cannibalism to memorial architecture, have accompanied modern humans, our ancestors, and our closest evolutionary cousins for hundreds of thousands of years. How does this apply to early modern England? In a previous post, we analyzed how the rituals of social mourning started to change by the mid seventeenth century. According to Philippe Aries, a slow but relentless transformation took death from being a somewhat banal event, to a fundamental break in human life-continuum. Cemeteries became not only burial sites, but also places to express collective sorrow; architectural symbols of a cult of memory that intertwines with narratives about societies’ past, and nations’ histories (Aries 1974, 68).

Even though people in Britain had been traditionally buried “either in the consecrated ground of their parish churchyard or within the church itself”, from the late eighteenth century on all major cities “had cemeteries, unconnected with any church, operated for shareholders for a profit” (Laqueur 1993, 184). The secularization of death, away from the monopoly of the Church, and the transformation of mourning practices would eventually lead to an industry of grief, intended to meet the demands of people’s private emotional world in the public space. The transition from modern to Victorian England saw the development of what has been denominated the “commercialization of the burial space”; a process in which a “thriving trade in funeral dress and increasingly complex codes of mourning etiquette” grew alongside a “profit-making joint-stock cemetery companies”(Strange 2005, 3).

In spite of the growing market share of the commercialization of death, these services remained pretty much unaffordable for everyone outside the wealthier classes. By the early nineteenth century, the elements of “good grief”, that is, funerals, graves, and the materiality of burial practices, were a luxury that reinforced the growing material character of bereavement. As Thomas W. Laqueur points out, by the early nineteenth-century “[d]eath had met up with capitalism and the market economy” (Laqueur 1993, 184), which meant that the exclusionary nature of markets limited the access to the industry of death, along class lines. Further research is needed to examine how the successive outbreaks of the plague impacted the overall numbers of people that passed away due to uncontrolled sorrow. Only then will it be possible to get a truer sense of London’s tears during the Early Modern period.

Works Cited

  • Defoe, Daniel. A Journal of the Plague Year. Classic illustrated Edition, Kindle edition.
  • Munkhoff, Richelle. “Searchers of the dead: authority, marginality, and the interpretation of plague in England, 1574–1665.” Gender & History 11.1 (1999): 1-29.
  • Ariès, Philippe, Ranum, Patricia, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Vol. 3., (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974)
  • Laqueur, Thomas, ‘Cemeteries, Religion and the Culture of Capitalism’ in J. Garnett and C. Matthew (eds.), Revival and Religion Since 1700, (London: Hambledon, 1993).
  • Strange, Julie-Marie, Death, grief and poverty in Britain, 1870–1914, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005)