Memorials of childhood. A qualitative comparison of late 19thcentury and late 20thcentury cemetery memorials of children in Bath, UK.

Fiona Finlay and Simon Lenton

1.    The status of children in society has changed significantly over the last 100 years and we speculated whether this might be reflected by changes in the memorials to them after death. We therefore compared the epitaphs and icononography in the graves of children from around the beginnings of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to examine whether changes in their status within society have been portrayed in their burials.

2.     In the middle of the 19th century, only fifty percent of children would have survived into adulthood, with approximately twenty percent dying in the first few days, a further twenty percent dying before the age of ten years, and another ten percent before they reached the age of twenty (1) (Figure 1). In comparison, infant mortality rates in England and Wales in 2013 were 3.8/1000 live births, and childhood mortality rates in 2006 between 1 month and 17 years were 2.8/1000 in SW England, reflecting a very significant improvement in health over the last hundred and fifty years (Griffiths).[1]

Figure 1: illustrating reduction in mortality in Bath between 1813 and 1978 (Bendall).

3.     The literature suggests that because of these high mortality rates, parents in the 19th century did not sentimentalise their children and the emotional attachment between parent and child was limited, with children often being regarded as economic assets, subsidising family income through employment (Lowe, Ariès, DeMause). The industrial revolution had created a huge demand for labour and the employment of children was important for Britain’s economic success, with almost fifty percent of the workforce being under the age of 20 years. It was not until 1833 that the ‘Ten Hours Act’ was introduced to curtail child labour.
Industrialisation created a number of simultaneous impacts on family life, separating work from home and separating male from female roles; and furthermore with the Education Act of 1870, children were expected to go to school rather than work, and they began to be treated like children rather than mini adults. In 1900, children could leave school at 12 years of age and in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14 years, rising to 15 in 1947 and 16 in 1972 (Cohen, Kehily).

4.    While children have been recognised as being different from adults throughout history, the concept of childhood is a relatively recent social construction. Thomas Phayre, a paediatrician and lawyer, wrote The Boke of Chyldren, first published in 1545, which recognised that medical conditions in childhood were different from those in adulthood. In 1603, William Shakespeare recognised the seven stages of man in his play As You Like It, the first three stages being, infant, schoolboy and lover. Rousseau, in 1762, describes a system of education in his novel Emile to illustrate how an ideal citizen should be educated to survive in society, and in 1881 Edward Rudolf founded The Children’s Society to promote the well-being of children.

5.    Modern views of childhood started within the more affluent classes, which began to treat children differently by providing them with toys, children’s clothes and their own bedrooms. In 1900 Frank Hornby invented Meccano, [2] encouraging children to play; in 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scouts; and in 1910 the Girl Guides were formed.

6.     Recognition of the rights of children and the responsibilities of adults to protect them continued throughout the 20th century, culminating in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) in 1989. The UN CRC aims to embed the best interests of the child throughout society by promoting their well-being, protecting them from harm, providing services to enhance their health and education, and giving them the right to participate in all aspects of life regardless of age, race or creed.

7.    In the late nineteenth century, there was a move from burials in churchyards to cemeteries. Increasing urbanization had led to overcrowded churchyards in towns and cities and it was believed that graveyards posed a significant health hazard to the surrounding neighbourhood, particularly at times of epidemics (Neiderud).

8.     Cremation was not legal until 1885, and the first recorded cremation was in March that year in Woking. By 1946, there were 58 crematoria which had performed 50,000 cremations and today cremation is the choice for around seventy percent of adults who die. There are now approximately 250 crematoria in the UK, the crematorium in Bath opening in 1961. [3] Registration of stillbirths was not compulsory until 1 July, 1927, and prior to 1874 a certificate was not required before a stillborn baby could be buried (Davis).

9.     We examined children’s memorials over two specific 50 year time periods (1864-1914 and 1964-2014), separated by 100 years, in two cemeteries in Bath, UK. Firstly in Locksbrook Cemetery, which was open between 1864 and 1937 and then Haycombe Cemetery, which opened in 1937 and is still in use today. We considered burial practice, together with the epitaphs and the iconography of the memorials.

Observations from Locksbrook Cemetery 1864-1937
10.     Considering the high mortality rate in childhood during the late 19th century, there are relatively few memorials still visible reflecting these childhood deaths. There is no separate area of the cemetery dedicated to children’s graves. Where gravestones exist, it is evident that it was common practice to bury either children or families together over a period of time. When ‘infants’ were buried, they were not always named and often were included in the graves of adults being buried at the time.

11.    The epitaphs were generally religious in origin and illustrated an acceptance of mortality, the verses chosen often depicting a better life hereafter rather than expressing sadness at the loss of the infant or child.

12.     Few graves had carvings or images associated with them, and where they do exist it is angels or cherubs, often with flowers, that are generally depicted. Typical inscriptions include:

In loving memory of William Henry Weeks, beloved child of James and Ada Weeks, who fell asleep in Jesus, May 8th 1898, aged 6 years.

In memory of Mary Bodley only daughter of Cornelius and Sarah Beer (of this city) who died 22nd August 1866 aged 33 years, by grace are ye saved. Also of Mary Greenslade, daughter of the above Mary Bodley, who departed this life July 13th 1864, aged 4 years, of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. Also two other children who died in infancy

Herbert Brooke Shaul who died July 31st1889, aged 7 months
Arthur Edward Shaul who died September 10th 1898, aged 16 months
Daisy Elizabeth Shaul who died March 1st 1895, aged 16 months

In loving memory of John Henry died Sep 24 1897 aged 4 ¾ years
and Albert Edward died Dec 16 1899 aged 2 ¾ years, also May Victoria died Dec 18 1999 aged 3 months. Children of Henry J and Ellen Podger
Not gone from memory nor from love but gone to Our Fathers Home Above
Also of Henry John Podger father of the above children who died Nov 27 1930 in his 68th year ‘At Rest’

Observations from Haycombe Cemetery 1937-today
13.    There are many graves for children in Haycombe Cemetery. The “butterfly section” is where stillborn babies and miscarried infants are buried and children’s graves are found in an area of the cemetery quite distinct from the adult graves. Children have their own individual graves and they are not generally buried with other family members.

14.     Entering the butterfly area, the overwhelming feeling is an area of love, with masses of colour on display. The graves are small plots, and a variety of icons appear on the gravestones, including butterflies, hearts and teddy bears. Gravesites are decorated with a wide array of additional ornamentation and adornment including children’s toys, flowers, balloons and mini lanterns. When we visited at Christmas time 2015, many graves were decorated with tinsel, reindeer, snowmen and small Christmas trees. Some epitaphs were of a religious nature, often referencing angels, whereas others were of a more personal nature, with expressions of love and remembrance:

Some people only dream of angels, we held one in our arms,
Love mummy and daddy

Too beautiful for earth, always in our hearts, Love mummy and daddy

Angels are forever, so we’ll never say goodbye

Our special little princess

No tears, no words, no voice can say
How much we miss you every day

15.    In the children’s section of the cemetery, many of the graves were also bright and colourful and decorated with windmills, rainbow chimes and mementoes representing the lives of children. There were lots of soft toys, but also models and carvings in stone, resistant to weathering. There were train sets, dogs and frogs, rabbits and snails, giraffes and fairies. Headstones came in all shapes and sizes; some had inscriptions in bright pink, and others had pictures of Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse. Many included a smiling photograph of the child.

16.     The epitaphs are increasingly personal statements from family members reflecting the importance of the life of the child and often saying how much the child is missed by family members. Some have religious verses and others have prose from favourite children’s poems or stories:

God gave us a treasure for a while to fill us with his love
and then he took our darling child to dwell with him above

Safe in the arms of Jesus

Our beautiful baby boy, put your arms around him Lord, kiss his lovely face,
for he is someone special, who can never be replaced
Mummy, Daddy and family

Gone from our home, but not from our hearts

We wish we could have spent a while,
To hear you laugh and see you smile

Here our pretty baby lies,
Sung asleep by lullabies

17.     The 19th century was an era when child mortality was high and one would expect cemeteries to have many children’s graves; but in Locksbrook Cemetery, like many others, few individual memorials to children or infants were found. At that time, it was common practice to have a family grave, new bodies being added as further deaths occurred, with the additional life being commemorated by an inscription on the single headstone, thereby reducing the cost involved. In some parts of Locksbrook Cemetery, graves are apparent, but many of the memorials either no longer exist or are completely overgrown. Wooden memorials have not survived and those made of soft stone often have suffered significant weathering preventing interpretation of epitaphs.

18.    In contrast, there are many children’s graves in Haycombe Cemetery. Although some epitaphs have biblical quotes, there are often messages from parents to their children, with references to love and loss. Iconography was much more varied, ranging from the traditional to the unique and personal, with many headstones featuring animals or cartoon characters, with teddy bears being particularly popular for babies. Lots of toys are evident, reflecting the importance of play for children today with additional mementoes placed at the grave site and in some an image of the deceased child was included on the headstone.

19.    Today children with known life-limiting conditions may be encouraged to participate in end of life planning (Finlay, Bennett), having preferences for their own funeral and suggesting memorials to celebrate their lives. In our experience children have requested burial in their favourite items of clothing, chosen music and readings for their funeral, requested that their coffin is transported by a coach and horses rather than a traditional hearse, and requested that those attending the funeral wear their favourite colour. Coffins now come in an array of different colours and may be customised, for example, in the form of an animal, mobile phone or ballet shoe. Some children have chosen a “funeral theme” from their favourite film or book and we have attended a funeral where the young person had requested balloons and streamers as decorations in the church, with strawberries, chocolate and champagne following the service.

20.    Additionally, there are multiple internet sources for inspiration for epitaphs from funeral homes, memorial stone masons and from parent/family support organisations, as well as from bereaved individuals who have constructed websites to help other families.

21.     The funerial and graveyard recognition of stillbirths and miscarriages is a relatively modern phenomenon, a whole area being dedicated to these in Haycombe Cemetery. No graves of stillborn babies could be found in Locksbrook Cemetery.

22.    The evidence from this small study is that cemetery memorials for children have changed substantially over the last hundred years. In part, this reflects the status of children in society, particularly the increasing recognition of their rights endorsed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC).

23.    The number of graves during the period 1864-1914 did not represent the numbers of deaths, this observation partly accounted for by deterioration and removal of headstones, and the life of newborns not being acknowledged and merely buried with an adult or being included in family graves without additional headstone engraving.

24.     Epitaphs and icons in the earlier period were generally of religious origin, recognising that the child had “gone to a better place.” In the later period, 1964-2014, epitaphs and icons were more secular and contemporary, celebrating the life of the child and recording family members’ feelings towards the child. Many toys and decorations adorned the graves. We know that the rights of children to express their views freely in all matters affecting them is increasingly being reflected in their participation in end of life planning when they have a life-limiting condition, and this is manifested in some memorials.

25.     The remembrance of stillborn infants was a notable difference between the earlier and later periods, and in the earlier period the epitaphs and icons were more traditional, with more references to their future than their past.

26.     It is interesting to speculate why these observed changes have occurred. Birth rates have fallen as survival rates have improved, so couples now have fewer children and they are expected to live longer than their parents. The reasons for longevity are complex but include improvements in nutrition, housing, sanitation, education, affluence and legislation to protect and promote health including the formation of a National Health Service in 1948.

27.    International human rights, democracy and legislation have embedded children’s rights into the fabric of society and children now have a voice and are encouraged to participate in all matters that affect them replacing the view that “children should be seen and not heard” prevalent in the Victorian era.

28.    The death of a child is now seen as an unexpected event and their lives are increasingly being celebrated in memorials. Materials for graves have become more durable – today few are constructed from wood, and new waterproof technologies allow portraits to be incorporated into headstones. As society has become more secular epitaphs have become less religious and reflect more the loss felt by family members.

29.    Possibly the most significant change over the last century has been the recognition of stillbirths, which in turn reflects beliefs that life starts with conception rather than at birth. The graves of stillborn infants are generally a colourful, child orientated remembrance of a life lost and increasingly this trend is seen in the graves of older children. These trends are likely to continue if children are given a say in how they, or their siblings are remembered.

Works Cited

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood. Trans. Robert Baldick. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Bendall, Peter. Bath Burial Index. Issue 3. Bath Record Office, 2014.

Bennett, Helen. A guide to End of Life Care: Care of children and young people before death, at the time of death and after death. Together for Short Lives, 2012.

Cohen, Marjorie. “Changing Perceptions Of The Impact Of The Industrial Revolution On Female Labour.” International Journal of Women’s Studies. Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 291-305.

Davis, Gale. “Stillbirth registration and perceptions of infant death, 1900–60: the Scottish case in national context.” The Economic History Review. Vol. 62, No. 3, Aug. 2009, pp. 629–654.

DeMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood. Psychohistory Press, 1974.

Finlay, Fiona, and Simon Lenton, et al. “Planning for the end of children’s lives—the lifetime framework.” Child: Care, Health and Development. Vol. 34, no. 4, July 2008, pp. 542-544.

Griffiths, Clare and Anita Brock. Twentieth Century Mortality Trends in England and Wales. Office for National Statistics, 2003.

Kehily, Mary Jane. “Understanding Childhood: An Introduction to some Key Themes and Issues.” An Introduction to Childhood Studies. Ed. Mary Jane Kehily. Open University Press, 2004.

Lowe, Roy. “Childhood Through the Ages.” An Introduction to Early Childhood Studies. Ed. Trisha Maynard and Nigel Thomas. 2nd ed. Sage Publications Ltd., 2009. 65-74.

Neiderud, Carl-Johan. “How urbanization affects the epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases.” Infection Ecology & Epidemiology. Vol. 5, No. 1, 2015. Accessed via Taylor & Francis Online.

Phayre, Thomas. The Boke of Chyldren. 1545. Accessed via