Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, c.1900s-1950s

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of History

Abstract

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. This period of study, from 1900 to 1950, includes two world wars and the advent of the nuclear age and the Cold War. Life expectancy was increasing for most groups across Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. The crude death rate fell from 16.0 per thousand in 1901-05 to 12.8 in 1941-5, though mortality rates remained highly dependent on region and social class. Infant mortality dropped rapidly, from 142.0 per 1000 live births in 1900 to 31.2 per 1000 live births in 1950. Furthermore, 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'.

What did this mean for families themselves? This research will explore the testimonies of individuals to think about how death and dying were perceived and experienced in modern Britain. It also involves research into public discussions of dying, such as in the press, and how medical practitioners cared for dying patients. The research explores how attitudes to and experiences of dying and death could vary for different groups of people. In particular, I will compare experiences and attitudes to dying across three different regions within Britain, through case studies of Lancashire, Glasgow and Leeds. Furthermore I will consider how factors like an individual's social class, gender and religion affected perceptions and experiences of death and dying.

Through this research, I will also investigate how families communicated about dying, and in particular how children learnt about death. The testimonies I will study will allow me to analyse how families coped with caring for a dying relative, and to consider their relationships with medical practitioners at these difficult times. Finally, the research will also consider how family memories and histories were used to help alleviate emotional stress associated with relatives dying.

This fellowship will enable me to develop my leadership in the field of modern British social and cultural history. As well as allowing me to commence research in a new area and develop a book proposal as a result, the fellowship will open up new opportunities for me to apply for a larger grant in the long term, to investigate dying in comparative perspective, across different parts of Britain, and between different societies across the world, and to pilot new methods of engagement to maximise the impact of this research. In particular, the fellowship will involve development of an exhibition at Abbey House Museum in Leeds; develop new exhibition content and a loan box of handling items with the Thackray Medical Museum; organise a number of events for different audiences, including conferences and 'death cafes'; and work with amateur historians as they investigate their family histories.

Planned Impact

There are a number of key beneficiaries of this research, including the four partners. For the Thackray Museum and Abbey House Museum (and for Leeds Museums and Galleries as a whole), the research will directly influence their exhibition content. This will take place through a specific exhibition in Abbey House Museum and in influencing the way in which death and dying are interpreted throughout the Thackray Medical Museum, as it undergoes a period of redevelopment over the next 2-3 years. A loan box of handling items will ensure death and dying are also part of the Thackray's educational and engagement programmes. Through the depth of historical knowledge produced by the research as part of this fellowship, as well as these specific opportunities to collaborate, these museums and their audiences will benefit significantly from this fellowship.

Secondly, the two other partners, Leeds Bereavement Forum and Leeds City Council Public Health team, will also benefit from this research. A better historical knowledge about practices in the past and the ways in which individuals and families deal with dying, and how this has changed over time, will help them in their work with the local community in Leeds. Both organisations aim to support members of the public to talk more openly about death and dying; history can provide one way in which to do this, and our joint death cafes will enable us to ensure the research has benefit for these communities.

The research will also benefit clinicians and others working in geriatric, palliative and bereavement care. Through ongoing conversations with colleagues in University of Leeds Academic Unit for Palliative Care, I am gaining a deeper understanding of some of the key issues in this part of healthcare and medicine today. Understanding how families have managed dying and death at home, for example, is one such issue, already identified in conversations with staff at the Unit. My research into dying at home in the past will be valuable for practitioners today, as they are pushed towards encouraging dying at home rather than in an institution for increasing numbers of patients. A joint conference with Leeds Bereavement Forum in May 2017 will help disseminate aspects of the research to this audience, and open up conversations about how historical knowledge is valuable for contemporary practitioners. The end of project conference will further develop this, as clinicians and others working in geriatric, palliative and bereavement care will be a key target audience, along with historians.

Furthermore, the research undertaken in this fellowship will be of benefit to family historians; both the 15 family historians with whom I will collaborate initially, and a wider audience of family historians reached through the workshop and research guide. Working with family historians to develop a broader understanding of what family history can mean (including interviewing and use of personal objects) has the potential to reshape practices in this area.

Another significant beneficiary of the research is Ellie Harrison, artist and performer of 'The Grief Series'. Harrison is very keen to know more about the history of dying and to find ways in which to incorporate this in to her future work. Including her work at one of the death cafes, and collaborating with her on the final conference will ensure that historical knowledge feeds into her work.

Finally, through death cafes, the final project conference (open to all), and my website, this research will also reach a broader public audience. Ultimately, historical knowledge about death and dying can help tackle remaining taboos in this area, and will increase public awareness of the history of family life in the past, and the wide range of different attitudes and practices relating to dying that could be found in twentieth-century Britain.

Publications

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L King (2019) Making Histories

 
Title Journey with Absent Friends: Part 6 of the Grief Series (artistic installation) 
Description This piece of work is a caravan full of artistic pieces and interactive activities. It asks visitors to consider where the memories of the dead live, think about how they remember loved ones, and consider how they would like to be remembered when they die. The caravan toured a range of sites, and continues to do so in 2019. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The impacts have been two-fold: - my research has strongly influenced the artistic piece, as both materials from my research (such as material from archival research) and the key themes and findings of the research (around remembrance, and material, spatial and sensory culture) permeate the caravan. Our collaboration has made the artists think historically and root their work in social context, and this can be seen in the caravan, in the audio archive and the share your story features. The caravan is effectively a growing museum and archive in miniature. - in turn, the caravan and research within it have strongly influenced those who have visited it. This impact has often been emotional, as visitors have reflected on their own mortality and wishes after their death. The caravan offers opportunity for reflection and deep thought. 
URL https://www.griefseries.co.uk/projects/journey-with-absent-friends
 
Description The research is ongoing, so findings are still emerging - I am entering the stage of writing up the research. Key findings relate to the deep continuities in the ways in which families and friends have remembered their loved ones, across the period of study (1900-50) and beyond. This takes place through the use of objects (keeping things that remind us of the deceased in some way); use of space (particular places which bring that person to life); and a variety of other mechanisms (such as story-telling, engagement with the senses through smell, for example). This is a key contribution to historiographical debates about death and dying; modes of remembering the dead were not just verbal, and so communication about death and the dead could go on. This questions the idea that death and talking of the dead was 'taboo' in this period

Another key area of research finding relates to the innovative method of collaboration with family historians we have developed, to access different kinds of materials relating to 'ordinary' families, which should be of interest to those interested in coproduction and histories from below. The PDRA and I will be publishing a chapter on this topic soon.
Exploitation Route Conversations about historical practices have proved a highly effective way of having non-confrontational discussion about a highly emotive topic. There are a variety of materials on our website which may help with this.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk
 
Description My research findings are being used by the following groups: - artists (most notably Ellie Harrison); museums (Thackray Medical Museum and Leeds Museums and Galleries); charities (Leeds Bereavement Forum, and through the Institute for Fund-raising); and Leeds City Council. Through a variety of channels, my research materials, approaches and findings are being used to instigate conversations with members of the public about their wishes for their and their relatives' end of life and post-death care. In particular, through activities such as an exhibition with Abbey House Museum, media appearances such as on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live, and through regular public engagement activities, the project has provoked members of the public to think differently about their remembrance of those that have died, and how they would like to be remembered. My research into death, dying and remembrance has contributed to achieving the aims and objectives of the Leeds Dying Matters Partnership. This award-winning cross-sector partnership is led by Leeds City Council, and delivers the aims of the Leeds City Council Public Health department, and the national Dying Matters campaign. These include getting people to talk about and make plans for their own deaths. A historical approach has been very fruitful, encouraging reflection and discussion in a softer and more engaging manner, appropriate given the subject remains difficult I have sat on this partnership since its inception in 2015, and has used my research in an exhibition and artistic work (below) and public engagement events to help deliver the Partnership aims. I also work closely with Leeds Bereavement Forum: LBF invited me to give a talk at their Annual General Meeting in 2016 and co-curate their annual conference for professionals in 2017, as well as contribute to a panel at their 2018 conference. This encouraged professionals (from hospices, bereavement and counseling services, the NHS) to consider how historical research could be useful in their practice. Through an exhibition at Abbey House Museum on 'Remembrance' (March-December 2018), my research on remembrance has shaped the museum's approach to this subject and allowed visitors to the museum to reflect on how they remember and how they want to be remembered. The exhibition uses objects, photos, recorded stories, digital tools, and interactive activities to demonstrate diverse practices of remembrance across different social groups. This has allowed members of the public space for reflection; realise the diversity of ways of remembering in past and present (thereby enhancing the perceived value of their own practices); and open up space for talking about death, a subject which still remains taboo.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description University of Leeds Ignite Scheme - funding for collaboration and impact
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Leeds 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 07/2018
 
Description Leeds Bereavement Forum 
Organisation Leeds Bereavement Forum
PI Contribution Collaborated on a conference with Leeds Bereavement Forum. We suggested speakers, gave a talk and ran a workshop. We also collaborated on three public engagement events together. We provided historical materials and interactive activities to complement those provided by LBF. We were present to engage the public in our research throughout. I also support the work of LBF, such as taking part in a panel for a funding competition.
Collaborator Contribution For the above conference, LBF hosted the event, and administrated it. They oversaw the programme. For the public engagement events, LBF collaborated on the organisation, and provided materials as well as being present to provide information and support to the public.
Impact This partnership has allowed us to explore the way that history might be helpful in bereavement services today. In particular we are working together to think about how historical examples of past practice might be a way of opening up difficult conversations about death and dying today.
Start Year 2015
 
Description Leeds Dying Matters/ Leeds City Council 
Organisation Leeds City Council
Department Public Health
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I sit on the Council-run Leeds Dying Matters partnership, supporting the work of the partnership in encouraging people to talk about their wishes for dying and death, and delivering on other aims of the Public Health team and the national Dying Matters campaign. As part of this work, I have taken part in a number of public engagement events.
Collaborator Contribution The Public Health team have provided organisational support for public engagement events, publicised my research via the Leeds Dying Matters website, and provided support in terms of considering the ways in which the history of death, dying and remembrance might have a policy influence.
Impact The key outcome of this partnership is the ability to feed into discussions about delivering public health policy within Leeds, and supporting the Partnership to deliver their aims by using historical research to engage the public in difficult conversations.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Remembrance exhibition at Abbey House 
Organisation Leeds Museums and Galleries
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Extensive contribution to exhibition at Abbey House Museum on 'Remembrance', launching March 2018 until February 2019. Our contributions included community engagement work with organisations such as Sikh Elders, Leeds Gypsy and Traveller Exchange, Caring Together and other individuals: work included interviews, securing object loans and a number of workshops with groups to gain a wide variety of perspectives to include in our exhibition. We also provided a range of materials, such as recorded autobiographies, used in my research, for use in the exhibition. We helped put together the collection of objects to feature in the exhibition. And finally, we co-wrote the exhibition content with the curator. This was a real team project between myself, postdoctoral Engagement Fellow Jessica Hammett and curator Patrick Bourne. Associated with the exhibition, we've helped put together a range of events, including talks a workshops throughout the year to complement the themes of the exhibition. With the Thackray Medical Museum, we have put together a handling box of museum items to use in public engagement around this theme.
Collaborator Contribution Patrick Bourne and other staff and volunteers at Leeds Museums and Galleries have likewise contributed to the exhibition in all the ways we have, detailed above (community engagement, preparation of objects, writing content, etc). They have also provided expertise in object handling and communicating complex research to a wide range of audiences.
Impact The major output is an exhibition, running for 12 months at Abbey House Museum. Other outcomes include an events series as well as joint workshops and community engagement leading up to this exhibition.
Start Year 2015
 
Description Work with Thackray Medical Museum 
Organisation Thackray Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution This is an ongoing and fluid relationship, and I am contributing to the way the museum is thinking about displaying death and dying, as it goes through a large-scale redevelopment. Both my focus on death, dying and remembrance, and the participatory methodologies I use are influencing the museum's work.
Collaborator Contribution The curatorial team has thus far contributed expertise on how death and dying should be displayed in public settings. They have helped us plan our handling box with Leeds Museums and Galleries, providing ideas for objects that should be included as this is developed further.
Impact Joint handling box with Leeds Museums and Galleries, and sharing of knowledge (ongoing).
Start Year 2015
 
Description Conference co-hosted with Leeds Bereavement Forum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact With Leeds Bereavement Forum, we put on a conference entitled 'Living with Dying: Past, Present and Future'. I gave a talk on my research and we ran a workshop with a colleague from Abbey House Museum, using objects from their collections. The aim of the day was to think about how history and historical knowledge might be used by professionals and practitioners in their work today. Many professionals reported a change in their views and that they had gained knowledge that would be useful in their practice - for example, 26 of 27 who filled in our feedback form suggested that 'exploring the past [is] a useful way of opening up conversations around death and dying'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Conference: The Senses and Spaces of Death, Dying and Remembering 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a conference held in March 2018 in collaboration with the Grief Series and Live Arts Bistro. It brought together artists, academics and practitioners working on death, to give talks and display their work. It was an excellent example of truly collaborative and cross-sector working, in which both academics and artists, and the practitioners involved learned from those from other sectors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk/conference/
 
Description Hosted workshop on collaboration between academics and family historians 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Ran a workshop on collaborations between genealogists, family historians, academic researchers and libraries/museum workers. Around 50-60 people attended, and the conference featured a range of talks and activities. Participants gave us excellent feedback, and reported it had inspired them to seek out new collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk/family-history-collaboration/
 
Description Living with Dying website and blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Our website is public-facing. It features information about the research, our partnership work, events and hosts a blog, which features guest contributors as well as posts from us. To date, there have been 29 posts featuring all aspects of my research and the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk
 
Description Participation in Leeds Dying Matters partnership 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact I have sat on this partnership for three years, feeding into dialogue about the Partnership's work in delivering on the Leeds City Council and national Dying Matters strategies around getting members of the public more engaged in issues around death and dying, and planning for their own care and post-death wishes. With members of the museums represented, I'm involved in conversations about how historical knowledge might be a useful tool in this work. I feed in material from my research, support and contribute to public engagement activity, and sit on a panel which awards community grants relating to the partnership.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk/dying-matters/
 
Description Public engagement stall at Kirkstall Deli Market 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Ran a public engagement stall at Kirkstall Deli Market with Leeds Museums and Galleries and Leeds Bereavement Forum, a food market. Stall featured museum objects and a range of interactive activities to inform people about the history of death and remembrance, and encourage them to think about their own wishes for their loved ones and themselves.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public engagement stall at Leeds Central Library 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public engagement stall to coincide with Mexican Dia de los Muertos celebrations. We ran a stall, alongside those from Full Circle Funerals and Leeds Bereavement Forum, about practices of remembrance, and how they compare in different periods of time and different parts of the world. Our 'shrine' to the deceased encouraged people to think about the different ways they remember, learn about different practices, and reflect on their wishes for the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public engagement stall at Leeds City Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We exhibited some of our research materials and findings at a Dying Matters event at Leeds City Museum. There were a number of exhibitors around the theme of death and dying. Our stall focused on the history of this topic, allowing people to engage with the topic less directly. This increased knowledge of social change over time and also encouraged people to reflect on their own wishes around death and dying - for their relatives and themselves.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Public engagement stall at Leeds Kirkgate market 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Took part in public engagement stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market. Audience reported interest in exhibition and that the stall made them think differently about remembering loved ones after they die.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Radio interview on Saturday Live 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I took part in an interview on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live, about my research and about the exhibition on Remembrance we co-curated. The estimated audience was c.2 million people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Remembrance Exhibition at Abbey House Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact [The category assigned above isn't really appropriate - there doesn't seem to be an obvious choice for this activity].

'Remembrance' is an exhibition at Abbey House Museum, Leeds, which runs from 3rd March - 31 December 2018. It features objects (both from the museum collections and loaned with participants with whom we've worked); audio content (interviews with participants and extracts from autobiographies read by volunteers); contextual information about changing practices of remembrance for the dead; interactive activities (opportunities to write a message in remembrance, contribute a photo, or describe/draw an object or place); and other multi-sensory ways of interacting with this theme (such as smells). The content in the exhibition draws on both historical source materials and community engagement with a number of groups. Source materials, research findings and participatory methodologies from my research have strongly influenced this exhibition. The aim is to engage members of the public with this them of how we remember those who have died, and help them reflect and plan for how they might remember their loved ones and be remembered themselves. The exhibition reached over 31,000 visitors and received exceptional feedback from those who saw it. The exhibition was accompanied by an events series, of twelve workshops, study days, talks and death cafes, reaching a further c.100 people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk/remembrance-exhibition/
 
Description Series of events for family historians 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We have run a series of events for a group of 15-20 family historians. These have included formal training as well as more social meetings to compare research. Throughout, we have supported the group and fed in contextual knowledge about social change over the last couple of centuries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://livingwithdying.leeds.ac.uk/family-historians/
 
Description Talk at Bishop Grosseteste University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A talk entitled 'My childhood's continuous fare': Children's relationship to dying, memory and family histories in Britain, c.1900-50' delivered to colleagues, students and members of the general public (mostly associated with Lincoln Historical Association). Increased knowledge and interest in this area as a result.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk at Suicide, Society and Crisis workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave talk entitled 'Experiencing, remembering and forgetting suicide in family life in Britain, c.1900-50' and engaged in lengthy discussions at Suicide, Society and Crisis workshop at the University of Sheffield. There was a good mix of different academic disciplines as well as clinicians, which helped me develop new networks and contacts around the theme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at the Institute for Fundraising Special Interest Group on In-Memory and Legacy giving 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave a talk to the Institute for Fundraising Special Interest Group on In-Memory and Legacy giving, at their Annual General Meeting. The audience was made up of around 70 charity professionals, who evaluated the talk as excellent, and reported that they would use the research in their practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk at the Register for Qualified Genealogists conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Gave a keynote address at the Register of Qualified Genealogists inaugural conference. Audience reported being inspired to seek out new collaborations and work in more collaborative ways as a result, and that they felt their work was valued in a new way.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Took part in Leeds Bereavement Forum's annual conference for professionals 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Took part in Leeds Bereavement Forum's conference on men and bereavement, by hosting a panel and contributing a historical perspective on gendered issues around death and dying. Professionals reported finding it very useful in their evaluation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Use of artwork to engage audiences through formal events and drop in activities 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Through the artwork created through this project, a caravan full of material and themes from my research, we engaged members of the public in discussions about how they remember and would like to be remembered when they die. This was highly effective, engaging audiences who may not have visited a museum or art gallery. The caravan toured sites around the UK and Germany. Visitors could drop in to explore it, or attend five events in Arran, Poole, Leeds (x2) and Hamburg.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019