Last year, I worked for a couple of months for a company located in a renovated factory on the Cataraqui River. The clients for this company were funeral homes. What was it like working in that line of business? It’s hard to find the right adjective to describe that business domain. Weird, perhaps. No other type of business deals with such an emotionally charged issue as death.
One of my tasks was scraping the existing client web sites to extract obituary data. Technically, the PHP programming was fairly straight-forward. However, the task also required reading through the extracted data to make sure it was read correctly. While I had no problem with most of the obits, which described rich, full lives of people who died of old age, other obits were more difficult to read. Such as obits for young children, including a brave 12 year old girl who lost her battle with cancer. One time, I read a death record that listed the place of death as “airplane” and the address of death as the World Trade Center. There’s a certain quality needed for people working in the funeral industry, a quality I lack. Even now, 14 months after I quit that job, I still have little desire to read obituaries.
Then again, I must still read death records, since one of my interests is genealogy. Finding the death or burial records for someone is just as important as finding their birth, baptism, or marriage records. But looking at the death records overall, the life expectancy statistics in past centuries can be quite shocking. Consider the following graph:
There are about 4500 individuals in my Gramps database. Of these, I know the age of death for 1149 of them. Most of these people lived in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The largest single lifespan age group is children younger than 5 years old. Prior to the 20th Century, high infant mortality substantially brought down the overall average life expectancy. That is, if you survived childhood, you stood a good chance of living into your 70’s or 80’s.
Take one family of distant cousins I researched yesterday using WieWasWie: Jacob van de Klomp and Hendrica van der Wepel (my 1st cousin, 3 times removed) were married in 1882 in Zeist, and had a total of 12 children, born between 1882 and 1898. Of the 12, four made it past their first year of life: Reijer born in 1882, Gosina born in 1889, Hendrica born in 1896, and Willem born in 1898. If they had lived just 50 years later, the vast majority of them would have survived infancy.
Prior to the 20th Century, certain things we take for granted today just didn’t exist. Things like sanitation, immunization, and proper health care. Epidemics, such as cholera, spread rapidly throughout Europe. I saw this clearly in the church records of Gielow, a small town in the south-east corner of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. While reading the microfilmed church records, I came across the burial record of Wilhelm Ludwigs in October 1850, who died at age 6 of cholera. Several pages later in the church book, I found the burial record of Magdalene Millhahn who also died in October 1850, three days old. Scanning through the pages, I found a total of 50 people who died in October and November of 1850 in that one small town, almost all of cholera.
I find genealogy fascinating since it brings history to a personal level. Looking at the death and burial records can be difficult emotionally, but really shows how difficult life was in past centuries, and how lucky we are today.