Walking with Death

Walking with Death: Loss and How to Stop all the Clocks

Death is our one shared, inevitable experience – and yet, apart from lurid, violent or celebrity deaths, as a day-to-day occurrence it is rarely discussed in the media, politics or other cultural contexts. This might in part be because of our repressed, collective anxiety about demise; about the increasing secularisation of public life; or about the poverty of a social life that is organised around endless consumerism and an economy that is expected to grow forever (which death, by its nature, rejects).

On this walk, we will explore aspects of death and dying; how its ritual and significance have changed over time, and how learning to have a good death is about creating the circumstances for a good life for all.

Widcombe: Lepers and Plagues

How did the authorities respond to disease and mass death in the pre-Enlightenment era? How does the idea of disease relate to social death? How does the metaphorical casting-out from community protect or hinder those left behind? Bath’s leper community lived up Holloway in an endowed community dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. There is evidence that treatment of leprosy was not as severe as some of the more lurid accounts (mainly from nineteenth century myth-making) suggest; that lepers were not cast out entirely from community but often encouraged to maintain contacts with friends and family, for example. As it was a relatively ‘classless’ disease, reaching its highpoint in England during the 11th and 12th centuries, care (usually by religious orders) was often quite good, with an emphasis on fresh air and eating well. Lepers were also sometimes prized as attendees at the funerals of the wealthy – as their scars represented for some Christ’s suffering on earth.

The River: A watery end

Water plays a deeply significant role in death ritual, reflected in the myths and legends of many cultures, and with the sea voyage as a profound metaphor for the passage of life. In later times, there was a death by water assumed a gendered form, associated with witch trials, drowning, and the suicides of ‘fallen women’. Men were supposed to commit suicide via manly means – cutting, shooting and hanging, whereas women were to favour the gentler form of poison or drowning.

Although women consistently had a lower suicide rate than men throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (men were three times more likely to kill themselves than women), the cultural image of the historic suicide is nearly always female. This is because like hysteria, or madness, suicide was considered to be a ‘female malady’ – which emerged from a sense of female irrationality versus male rationality.

The Avon witnessed its fair share of drowning, both deliberate and accidental. It came to symbolise for many Bath’s polluted netherworld of vice and disease, especially as the poorest parts of the city hugged its banks.

Manvers Street Baptist Chapel: Dissenting unto Death

John Wesley famously declared that Bath was the ‘Sodom of the land’ and that possibly Satan’s throne might reside in the City. Presumably just to check on his outrage he visited the City over 100 times, and Bath was the UK’s fourth Methodist society to be formed. Methodism was only one of several dissenting religions to be found in the city. There were many, many places of worship in Bath – even today well over 60. These included several dissenting sects including Methodism, Primitive Methodists, Baptists, and Swedenborgians (who inspired William Blake). There are several dissenting burial grounds in the city: Walcot Methodist burial Ground, Widcombe Ebenezer Chapel, Unitarian Burial Ground Lyncombe, Quaker Burial grounds in Batheaston and Widcombe, Moravian Burial ground Weston, Jewish Burial Ground in Combe Down, Independent Burial Ground in Snow Hill, Bath Union Workhouse, Batheaston Baptist, Baptist Burial Grounds Snow Hill and Lyncombe, Abbey and St James’ graveyard for the poor (non-denominational).

Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases (later the Mineral Hospital)

Built by Wood the Elder – 1738-42; the hospital was one of the first hospitals to treat rich and poor alike. The modest fee for treatment is said to have paid for your funeral if treatment was unsuccessful or the journey home if you were cured. Locals were not admitted; on the basis that they did not need accommodation, and the indigent had to show proof of their poverty. There is not much evidence that the waters were particularly effective as a cure. In the anonymous poem The Diseases of Bath (1737) the reader is taken on a journey to the Pump Room where Tumult, hurry, noise and nonsense blend…the poem goes on to document concerns about the unwashed poor, the unwashed rich, and the filth sticking to one’s body after a session in the communal bath house.

The Baths – and there were several – were a curiously democratic experience, with mixed bathing (often nude) and the chronically and terminally ill bathing with those with far lesser complaints. The mixed nature of the bathing often raised moral panics in the city, as ‘lewd’ acts might be encouraged by naked proximity in the warm waters. And the stench was claimed to be so great from the collective bathing of the otherwise generally unwashed that studded pomanders were floated on the water to help mask the smells.

Walcot Street: Poverty Knocks

Walcot was one of the poorest parishes in Bath, and by the mid-nineteenth century life expectancy was only around 30 for a resident of the parish. Walcot was home to one of three work houses in the city; around 20% of the residents were reliant on relief to survive so many would have ended their days institutionalised by the local authorities. A graveyard specifically for Bath’s poor was opened in 1781 at the other side of town in Lyncombe Hill; this was later extended to St Mark’s graveyard behind Bath Spa station. Fear of a pauper’s burial was profound in the nineteenth century, and families often paid into early ‘friendly societies’ to avoid it as a possibility. These fears are still very much with us; research has highlighted in recent years that we have a contemporary ‘cost of dying’ crisis, with the number of ‘pauper burials’ more than doubling in the last five years.