Thursday, 5 April 2012

The living and the dead - Interview

The condition in which the remains are often found on the occurrence of a death at the eastern part of the metropolis are thus described by Mr. John Liddle, the medical officer of the Whitechapel district of the Whitechapel Union.

What is the class of poor persons whom you, as medical officer, are called upon to attend to ?

The dock labourers, navigators, bricklayers' labourers, and the general description of labourers inhabiting Whitechapel and lower Aldgate.

On the occurrence of a death amongst this description of labourers, what do you find to be the general condition of the family, in relation to the remains. How is the corpse dealt with?

Nearly the whole of the labouring population there have only one room. The corpse is therefore kept in that room where the inmates sleep and have their  meals. Sometimes the corpse is stretched on the bed, and the bed and bed-clothes are taken off, and the wife and family lie on the floor. Sometimes a board is got on which the corpse is stretched, and that is sustained on tressels or on chairs. Sometimes it is stretched out on chairs. When children die, they are frequently  laid out on the table. The poor Irish, if they can afford it, form a canopy of hite calico over the corpse, and buy candles to burn by it, and place a black cross at the head of the corpse. They commonly raise the money to do this by subscriptions amongst themselves and at the public houses which they frequent.

What is the usual length of time that the corpse is so kept?  

The time varies according to the day of the death. Sunday is the day usually chosen for the day of burial. But if a man die on the Wednesday, the burial will not take place till the Sunday week following. Bodies are almost always kept for a full week, frequently longer.

What proportion of these cases may be positively contagious ?

It appears from the Registrar-General's Report (which, however, cannot be depended on for perfect accuracy, as the registrar's returns are very incorrect, I do not think I have been required to give a certificate of death upon more than three occasions), that in the year 1839, there were 747 deaths from epidemic diseases which formed about one-fifth of the whole of the deaths in the Whitechapel Union.

Have you had occasion to represent as injurious this practice of retaining the corpse amidst the living?

I have represented in several communications in answer to sanitary inquiries from the Poor Law Commission Office, that it must be and is highly injurious. It was only three or four days ago  that an instance of this occurred in my own practice, which I will mention. A widow's son, who was about 15 years of age, was taken ill of fever. Finding the room small, in which there was a family of five persons living, I advised his immediate removal. This was not done, and the two other sons were shortly afterwards attacked, and both died. When fever was epidemic, deaths following the first death in the same family were of frequent occurrence. In cases where the survivors escape, their general health must be deteriorated by the practice of keeping the dead in the same room.

Do you observe any peculiarity of habit amongst the lower classes accompanying this familiarity with the remains of the dead?

What I observe when I first visit the room is a degree of indifference to the presence of the corpse: the family is found eating or drinking or pursuing their usual callings, and the children playing. Amongst the middle classes, where there is an opportunity of putting the corpse by itself, there are greater marks of respect and decency. Amongst that class no one would think of doing anything in the room where the corpse was lying, still less of allowing children there.


No comments:

Post a Comment