As I proceed to transcribe the sextons accounts of Bromley Saint Peter and Saint Paul I am reminded of questions asked by students and family historians over my years as a genealogist on this cause of death.
The early years of civil registration of death contain references to cause of death on death certificates and coroner's verdicts of Ex visitatione dei or Visitation by God as a recorded cause of death based upon medical opinion for the death.
On 6 March 1835 the burial of Edmund Neighbour of Bromley Common takes place in the Bromley parish churchyard. The Bromley Sexton in describing the burial in the south east part of the graveyard in a 7 foot deep grave also describes the circumstances of the discovery of his body dead in bed and the coroner's jury finding of death by visitation of God.
The duties of a Coroner include examining the circumstances of sudden or unexplained death as we see in this example. The Coroner first determines whether there are any suspicious circumstances and seeks evidence from medical opinion. The Coroner is concerned primarily in the detection of any crime or explanation of circumstances leading to death and likely to accept medical opinion as to other causes.
Of course any doctor called to a dead body is faced with a challenge; in a period when so little knowledge existed of many fatal conditions unless there was visible injury to the person or presence of fever,evidence of alcoholism or drinking alcohol prior to death or a history of epilepsy or "apoplexy" then the death could not be easily diagnosed. Indeed such natural causes would account for many deaths and the detail of this volume of sexton's accounts describe sudden death in shops,the Market Square and elsewhere in Bromley Kent over the years from 1809-1838. It was only in cases of poisoning or injury to the body that an autopsy would be called for. The medical practioner would rely on accounts of people who knew the deceased.
Medical practice and the law had therefore devised the term Visitation of God to explain the death by natural causes. In more religious times it was supposed that God had determined it was time for the person to die and this cause of can be found in a variety of record sources from the 1600's onwards.
In 1836/7 the Registration of Births and Deaths Act came into force but giving the cause of death on a death certificate remained optional, however in 1837 The Royal College of Physicians, The Royal College of Surgeons and the Society of Apothecaries circulated their joint view that accurate registration of cause of death needed to be provided. The term "natural causes" came into medical practice on recording cause of death. It was open to the Registrar General to communicate with any medical practitioner if the cause of death on certification was considered unnaceptable in order to obtain a more accurate medical description. It was not until the Births and Deaths Act 1874 that it became compulsory to give the cause of death with penalty for failure to do so.
It is therefore possible to find death certificates between 1837 and 1874 with Visitation by God as cause of death. These frequently lead family historians to ask what did this cause of death mean?
Once again the detailed sextons account compiled by Edward Dunn the parish sexton has answers for 21st century searchers.
© Henry Mantell Downe Online Parish Clerk 2013-2016