UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Death in British Columbia 1850-1950 Coates, Colin MacMillan


In British Columbia between 1850 and 1950 attitudes towards death shifted significantly. In the early decades of white settlement, reactions to death resembled the social norms historians have established for other parts of the Western world during the same period. Death occasioned a moment during which the family (and to a lesser extent the larger community) expressed links with the deceased through magnificent funerals and imposing mortuary art. Centred in the family circle, mortality implied both a desirable escape from daily trials and a future reunion with relatives in a heavenly home. By 1920, however, facets of this mentalite had undergone an evolution. Many commentators on modern attitudes argue that contemporary society "denies death." Analyses of personal letters and memoirs, government correspondence and reports, funeral industry records, and epitaph inscriptions illustrate that in British Columbia individuals actually confronted mortality in an intellectual, but not a physical, sense. It was the shunning of physical reminders of mortality, as shown by the popularity of embalming, cremation, caskets and funeral parlors, which permitted this intellectual confrontation. Nondescript cemeteries and monuments and the common use of vitalistic euphemisms stress the continuing life of the deceased in the confines of the memory of the mourner. Such links were entirely individual ones, and the individuality of modern attitudes is also apparent in changing perceptions of health. As emphasis shifted from improving the public's well-being to focussing on personal health, each assumed ultimate responsibility for his or her own health and death. The importance thus placed on the individual is largely a trait of middle class sensibilities. Changes in mortuary practices all stemmed from bourgeois reforms. Indeed, these shifts represented one means by which the middle class fostered its own identity. Establishing a separate, abhorrent rite for paupers, that is those who had rejected the economic structure of society by not providing for their departure from it, the middle class further affirmed' its identity. For twentieth century bourgeois British Columbians, confronting death was an individual, internal, and intellectual exercise.

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