A large number of causes of death recorded within the Leeds General Cemetery burial registers are related to mental health issues. Some of these terms and issues may be distressing to modern readers. The classification and diagnosis of mental health issues has undergone dramatic change in the past 100 years. So too have attitudes and terminology about mental health overall.
It may seem strange that these terms are listed as causes of death. The cause of death recorded in the burial registers was often a symptom of an underlying problem, rather than the condition that led to death itself. This happened for a number of reasons: it may be that the person reporting the death lacked an understanding of illness and disease or that they were not present at the time of death.
A cause of death related to mental health in the burial registers often tells us only that that person suffered from a condition, rather than telling us anything about their death. Sometimes, a listed cause of death may be a place rather than a condition, such as ‘Wakefield Asylum’.
The mental health issues listed within the burial registers represent a number of distinct conditions. Below are some brief explanations of the terminology that appears most frequently in the burial registers. However, as definitions often varied from year to year and practitioner to practitioner, we encourage you to undertake your own research to find out more specific details if you are looking at a specific case. Use the further reading guide at the end of this entry to get started.
‘Insanity’ was a broad term for any kind of mental health condition causing unusual behaviour or extremes of mood.
‘Lunacy’ could refer to a condition which caused the sufferer to experience delusions, but it was also applied to people with learning difficulties.
‘Melancholy’ is an archaic term for a condition that might today be described as depression. A sufferer may experience extremely low mood and feelings of hopelessness or numbness.
Two of the terms that appear in the burial registers, ‘puerperal mania’ and ‘lachtational insanity’ [sic] describe mental health conditions that developed following the birth of a child.
‘Hysteria’ was a condition ascribed exclusively to women. The premise of this diagnosis was that sufferers were commuting psychological stress into physical symptoms, such as nervousness, fainting, loss of appetite, a change in libido and insomnia. This is no longer recognised as a medical condition.
- Roy Porter, Madness: A Brief History (OUP: Oxford, 2003)
- Andrew T Scull, Museums of madness: the social organization of insanity in nineteenth-century England (Allen Lane, London: 1979)
- Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830 - 1980 (London: Virago, 1987)
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.