D is for Death

2 April 2019
Dance of Death skeletons

Image: Dance of Death 1490 courtesy of Medivalists.net

Causes of death have been recorded in burial registers and civil registrations for hundreds of years.  Some of the terms are now archaic, old-fashioned and no longer in common parlance, but they can be very poignant.  It has always been necessary to distinguish who died from communicable infectious diseases from those who did not – their corpses would be treated with greater caution.  For example, cholera victims would be placed at the far end of the burial ground where water-drainage away from the community was a consideration.

disease in the middle ages

Image: Disease in the Middle Ages, taken from Historic UK

As a medical practitioner for over 30 years, I have seen more dead bodies than I would ever have liked to – hundreds of them.  One of my duties was to issue a ‘Medical Certificate of Cause of Death’ for every newly deceased person I came across.  Before the advance of medical understanding, many recorded causes of death were purely ‘best’ guesses to a cause that fitted the symptoms.  Many would have been totally inaccurate.

So, with a brief A-Z of causes of death, I present some that appear on death certificates, and this is just a wild selection.

A is for apoplexy, from a brain haemorrhage or stroke – I knew a man who died from this … poor bloke;

B is for botulism, from deadly toxins, thankfully rare; and also for Bright’s Disease, not hearty or hale, if you suffer from this your kidneys will fail;

C is for ‘child bed’, cholera, or consumption – recovering from these took some gumption;

D is for dropsy, a build-up of fluid – with no means to drain it your heart blew it;

E is for epilepsy with twitching and uncontrollable fits – no fun at all whenever it hits;                                                                crow

F is for fever, a temperature very high, a ‘burning’ heat that could make you cry;

G is for general paralysis, a slowly progressive venereal disease – you would be in an asylum before you were seized;

H is for hydrocephalus, ‘water in the head’, incredible pressure, invariably fatal – you’d soon be dead;

I is for ‘inflammation’ that could take several forms and arise in several places – many who succumbed became hospital cases;

J is for jaundice when you turn yellow to your peril, your liver is buggered and you’ll soon meet the devil, luminous and yellow, you are an unsightly fellow;

K is for King’s Evil, a skin disease, called scrofula if preferred, related to scurvy and supposed to be cured by the touch of royalty, but only if you’d been referred;

L is for lock-jaw, tetanus induced: with that ‘sardonical’ face with its horrible grin – makes one head for the gin;

M is for measles or mumps that took many children away; or for meningitis that could be a complication that day, both serious enough to prevent further play;

N is for nausea, maybe due to morning sickness – few would be measuring their coffins for thickness;


O is for old age, or ‘natural decay’ – if you made it that far you’d kept illness at bay;

P is for palsy, pneumonia or pleurisy, but also for phthisis, the galloping consumption known as TB –never one to be acquired with glee;

Q is for quinsy, a purulent swelling of the tonsils treated by lancing with a knife – one wrong move by the surgeon could end your life;

R is for rubella, rigor and rickets – all of these diseases meant no return tickets;

S is for scarlet fever, suicide and for smallpox – any of which would result in a box;

T is for typhus fever, spread by parasites – you’d better look out in case one bites;

U is for uraemia and ulcerative colitis – suffering from either was never the brightest;

V reflects the ‘Visitation of God’, sometimes stated as the mighty cause; God only knows what that was about; sometimes stated as an event, but if you saw him you’d be Heaven sent;

W is for water in the chest or the head, frequently cited as a cause of the dead.

X is for xerocytosis, a haemolytic anaemia, not widely known, but if you get it you will moan;

Y is for yellow fever, spread by mosquitoes it is viral, and blinking heck your health will spiral;R.I.P

Which leads to Z is the last of the line.  If you have made it this far, you are doing just fine.

That ends my eclectic selection of causes of death to be found in burial registers and the death certificates.  There are many more such as ‘killed by a waggon’, or ‘shot’, ‘bursting of a vessel’,’ teething’ or ‘rot’.

Happy D-day!


This blog was written by our Researcher John Burt. 

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