As a genealogist I've long identified with Haley Joel Osment's famous line in the film The Sixth Sense: "I see dead people". To non-genealogists, family historians can sometimes seem obsessed with death. Death comes to us all, in the end, and ultimately much of genealogy involves not seeing but researching dead people. Friends and family have come to accept that I can't pass a graveyard without wanting to pop in for a quick - or not so quick - look around.
Of course, most of our ancestors are dead, and as genealogists we want to know when they met their end. In Scotland there has been a legal requirement since 1855 to register all deaths, and statutory registers of death are excellent sources for family historians. In most cases, they record the name of the deceased, their spouse(s) if any, their parents, the cause of death and so on. Before 1855, however, the records are less helpful.
There are gravestones, tangible reminders of the existence of our ancestors. Many graveyards have been recorded by enthusiasts and their inscriptions published (usually referred to as Monumental Inscriptions or MIs). More recently, the rise of digital photography has made collections of photographs of gravestones popular. But not everybody could afford a gravestone, and not all gravestones survive in a legible condition.
A few years ago, Scotland's People made available the burials recorded in the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). These are a great resource, but they are far from complete. There are some OPR burials for around two-thirds of Church of Scotland parishes, but in some cases there are very few burials recorded - there are only two for Fearn in Angus, and only nine for Galston in Ayr.
So if there is no gravestone, and no OPR burial, does that mean we can't find out when our ancestor died? Not necessarily. There is another type of record that can help: mortcloth accounts.
A mortcloth (from the Latin mors meaning death) was a ceremonial cloth draped over a coffin (or a corpse if the family could not afford a coffin) at a funeral. Most families didn't have their own mortcloths - not unreasonable when you consider that any one person only needs it once! - instead hiring them for the occasion. In burghs, the individual trades might have their own mortcloths which were lent to members for the occasion. But in most cases, mortcloths were available to hire from the Kirk Sessions.
In many cases, the Kirk Sessions owned more than one mortcloth - smaller ones for children, or more elaborate ones for a higher fee. (Even in death, not everyone was equal.) The money raised from renting out the mortcloth was generally used for poor relief, and as a result, the Sessions often kept good records of payments received. While they may not necessarily contain a great amount of detail, mortcloth accounts may be the only way to identify when an ancestor died. (See for instance Aberlady accounts 1826-1846, Forgandenny minutes 1783-1836 and Dalmeny Accounts 1736-1779.) They should however be treated with a degree of caution, as the date recorded for payment may be some time after the death and funeral.
We've extracted some entries from Dalmeny [NRS Reference CH2/86/8 p. 294-295] below.
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