Living with Dying:
Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s

In twentieth-century Britain, dying was both extraordinary and an ‘everyday’ experience. Whilst the death of a loved one was a momentous emotional event for the family involved, within the wider community death occurred regularly.

The period between 1900 and 1950 saw significant changes in death and remembrance:

  • The formal mourning rituals common amongst much of Victorian Britain gradually declined.
  • The two world wars resulted in huge military and civilian casualties and established new remembrance practices. The period ended with the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War.
  • Life expectancy was increasing for most groups. The crude death rate fell from 16.0 per thousand in 1901-05 to 12.8 in 1941-5, and infant mortality dropped rapidly – though mortality rates remained highly dependent on region and social class.
  • These decades saw the development of different medical technologies and care options for individuals who were elderly and dying. This process culminated in the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, as the welfare state brought about a new level of care for all, ‘from cradle to grave’.

Our research

But what did this mean for families themselves? How have attitudes to and experiences of dying and death varied for different groups of people? And what can we learn from this period to help us talk about and cope with death and dying in the present?

As part of this project, we’ll be researching people’s experiences of death, dying and remembrance in Britain, c.1900-50s. The focus is on the voices of individuals themselves, and recovering those through detailed examination of autobiographies, archived interviews, and our work with our group of family historians. Through the blog we’re posting updates on the research as it happens.

Why does history matter?

We think history has a role to play today. History can help us question the present, understand how change might come about in the future, and challenge assumptions about things always getting better. It can help us understand the attitudes of older generations. And we’re dealing with a sensitive and emotional subject here – not everyone is comfortable talking about death. By using stories and examples from the past, we also hope that history might offer an easier or more neutral way for people to start thinking about their or their relatives’ own end of life care and death, and plan for these where possible. You can read more about why we think history matters in our introductory blog post here.

 

This project has been generously supported by The Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is being led by Dr Laura King at the University of Leeds. Find out more about the project team and our project partners.