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Neolithic Period and Bronze Age

Archaeologists investigate the role of death and of mortuary practices among early populations using excavated evidence and analogy with traditional societies. In some periods formal burial may have been exceptional rather than commonplace. For remote times, there is little evidence at all for burial.

In the Neolithic period, human bone was an important constituent in ritual of differing kinds. Interment of corpses in chambers produced bones that could either reside in repositories or be circulated among locations. Complex rules were followed to associate such bones with pottery or with the bones of wild or domesticated animals.

In the Bronze Age, individual burials more often retained their skeletal integrity, although cremation deposits could contain the mixed remains of several people. Interments still accumulated within cemeteries, while prominent barrows and rich grave items proclaimed the status of lineages.

A closer link between living places and burial became evident during the second millennium BC.


Iron Age and Roman Period

For the Iron Age, relevant evidence for death and burial is limited. How the majority of dead were disposed of often remains a mystery. Nevertheless it is possible to focus upon some striking funerary examples such as cart burials, cist cemeteries and warrior graves, although it is rarely possible to use this evidence to assert afterlife beliefs.

For the Roman period the evidence is comparatively substantial as graves, cemeteries and tombstones survive. Furthermore, sources from elsewhere in the Roman world record aspects of funeral ritual and the death industry. But was there standardisation across the Roman world? In England, did distinctions between Roman and local practices persist? Whether the dead were cremated or inhumed is a critical issue. The shift to burial eventually created a common rite across England even though the original impetus for the change remains unknown.



Catherine Parr's tomb at Sudeley


The Medieval Period

The diversity of pagan Anglo-Saxon and Viking burial rites relies largely on archaeological evidence. Christianity fostered new written sources - wills, monastic records, charters, literary and religious works - which steadily increased throughout the Middle Ages. This early period also sees, in illuminated manuscripts and sculptures, the first surviving representations of the Christian afterlife in England.

From the twelfth century, the formalisation of the doctrine of Purgatory and its steady dissemination throughout society brought a significant shift in the way contemporaries thought about death and the afterlife. This led ultimately to the erection of a massive edifice of postmortem prayers and charitable works to help the souls of the dead towards salvation. In other respects, notably in ideas about the body after death and the status of ghosts, popular thinking was less clearly in step with official teaching. The impact of the Black Death at the end of the period was initially to intensify existing ways of thinking about death rather than to transform them altogether. The emphasis on the macabre, often seen as characteristic of the post-plague world, was in fact well established by the beginning of the fourteenth century and the Church had long urged Christians to contemplate their own mortality by stressing the transience of life and the corruptibility of the body.

Was there a 'new' death in the late Middle Ages, a sensitivity to physical decay born of the experience of the Black Death and later plagues? If so, what were its parameters and how did contemporaries face its challenge? Whilst morbid depictions of death in the visual arts are undeniable, with death now seen as an attacker, most people seem to have approached death with hope rather than fear. Worms and cadavers notwithstanding, memorials and tomb sculpture offered an optimistic reading of death, whilst manuals of dying offered the prospect of a good death for many. Perhaps more challenging was the sixteenth-century attempt, articulated by the Henrician and Edwardian state during the English Reformation, to redraw the boundaries of death, severing the vital links between the living and the dead which had exemplified the social practice of the late Middle Ages.


The Church's Influence

From the accession of Elizabeth I to the Restoration, the Protestant doctrine of the afterlife, in which the living could no longer assist departed souls by prayer, both made the deathbed a more irrevocable turning point and altered the balance of sacred and secular elements in funeral rituals, bringing greater prominence to secular aspects such as eating and drinking after the burial. The heraldic funerals of the aristocracy in Elizabeth's reign focused attention on social status while the night burials of the seventeenth century allowed for greater expression of the sorrow of bereavement. This sense of loss also appears in letters of the time and in tomb sculpture. It was, however, during the Interregnum - a period comparatively meagre in historical sources - that Protestant doctrine was taken to its logical conclusion and burial briefly became a secular ceremony conducted by the laity.

The century between the Restoration and the accession of George III experienced high mortality, at least until the I730s, but also the dawn of a new confidence that disease could be curbed. It tolerated growing squalor in London slums, and the overcrowding of urban churchyards, yet cherished an ideal of decency, balance, harmony, restraint and seemliness - in respect of deathbeds, funerals and mourning rituals. This was the great age of classical funeral monuments and dignified prose epitaphs. Substantial headstones began to transform the appearance of churchyards. The testimonies of countless funerary inscriptions and funeral sermons are complemented by descriptions of individual reactions to death in some of the most intimately revealing of all English diaries and private correspondence. The apogee of 'rational religion' was followed by the beginnings of evangelical revival.


Death in England - An illustrated history, edited by Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gittings (published by Manchester University Press, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9NR, tel 0161 273 5539; web:; 1999, ISBN 0 7190 5811 2, 290 pages, £19.99).


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