‘Natural Decay’ was a commonly recorded cause of death in the 19th and early 20th century. The term was understood to mean the decline of life, health and strength in old age. In essence, this is an archaic term for dying of old age.
In Victorian Britain ‘decay’ signified the body’s decline as a result of aging and the general process of dying. At this time ‘decay’ was commonly used in language to describe the aged or frail qualities of an elderly person. For example, someone may comment on their own ‘decaying powers’ or a family member's ‘decaying mind’. In Robert Hooper’s 1856 ‘Physician's Vade-mecum’, he explains that a person may expect to see at around the ages of 50 or 60, indicators of ‘that slow decay’ such as loss of power, sluggishness of function and impaired memory. In 1900 the term ‘natural decay’ was defined as the declining condition of an organism and ‘the gradual failure of health and strength incident to old age.’
Today, old age is not generally used as a valid cause of death. When filling out death certificates, Doctors are given guidance to avoid using this phrase as the sole cause of death.
In the burial registers, over 1400 women are recorded as having died of natural decay, while only approximately 800 men are recorded as having this cause of death. This is a disproportionately high number of women who were assigned the cause of death ‘natural decay’. One possible explanation could be that men’s deaths were investigated more thoroughly than women’s deaths, resulting in men being assigned a more precise cause of death. The circumstances leading to the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 suggest the existence of Victorian anxieties about the propriety of medical examinations of women. Rene Laënnec was a French doctor who invented the stethoscope because he felt it was improper to place his ear on the chest of a female patient.
Of those in the burial register who died of natural decay, the most frequently appearing role is ‘widow’. Over 1000 of the women recorded as having died of natural decay were also recorded as being widows. Without a married partner, it is likely that the informant of a widow’s death was not present at the death and was unknown by the deceased. In these situations the cause of death may have been assumed to be ‘natural decay’. Of all the widows recorded in the burial registers, the most common causes of death are ‘unknown’ and ‘natural decay’. These absent or vague causes of death suggest that people were less likely to investigate deeply the death or a widow. Generally speaking, widows were often elderly and less well connected socially. During the Victorian period especially, widows were often socially marginalised because in losing their spouse, they also lost their status and financial support.
On the other hand, dying of natural decay may indicate that a person was fortunate enough to live into old age and not exhibit the recognisable symptoms of a disease. In the burial registers, more people with the occupation of ‘gentleman’ are recorded as having died from natural decay than those with the recorded occupation of ‘labourer’. As Edwin Chadwick showed in his famous 1842 report, the living conditions of the labouring classes were associated with greater instances of disease. The upper class would have enjoyed higher standards of living conditions and consequently would have been more likely to live into old age.
‘Natural Decay’ is one of the top ten most common causes of death recorded in the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers . To find out more, visit the Leeds General Cemetery Burial Registers Index. Select ‘View key statistics’ to generate charts displaying the numbers, ages, gender and more of those affected.
Written by Imogen Gerard and Kelsie Root, as part of their internship with the AHRC project, 'Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s', summer 2017.