How funeral biscuits shed light on Victorian attitudes towards death

Dr Amy Gadoud © Lancaster Museums
Dr Amy Gadoud and an advertisement for funeral biscuits

Lancaster Medical School researcher Dr Amy Gadoud is talking about funeral biscuits as part of a series of local history podcasts and exhibitions to mark a hundred years of Lancaster City Museums.

To mark the centenary milestone, a hundred objects housed across the city’s museums will be featured in weekly podcasts featuring local people, experts and museum staff.

Many of the contributors are from Lancaster University including Dr Gadoud who is also a Consultant in Palliative Medicine at Trinity Hospice Blackpool.

For the podcast, Dr Gadoud chose an advertisement for funeral biscuits as an example of how differently the Victorians viewed death and dying. There was an elaborate system of imagery and rituals surrounding death, of which the funeral biscuit was just one part.

Dr Gadoud said: “Funeral biscuits were biscuits served at or associated with funerals. They were generally two biscuits wrapped up and presented to each person attending the funeral or sent out with the invite to the funeral or afterwards. The biscuits were often wrapped in paper that had a verse or design printed on it and these would include very direct references to death and the shortness of life.”

The biscuits in this advertisement were probably produced in the 1850s at a time when the average life expectancy for a man in the UK was 40 years old and 43 for a woman.

A report into the health of the people of Lancaster in 1845 showed that a member of the local gentry could expect to live over 20 years longer than the average worker. For children and young people who were working their life expectancy was even lower with the average child factory hand in Lancaster dying at the age of 15.

In 2019 the average life expectancy for a man in Lancaster and Morecambe was 78.3 years and for a woman 82.5 - almost double what it had been 167 years earlier.

Dr Gadoud said: “Nowadays with improved mortality rates and people dying in hospital, experiencing the death of a loved one is less common. Death can be seen as a taboo and something that is not talked about in society. For those who are dying and those close to them, especially for those who wish to be cared for at home, it can be an isolated experiencing adding to the distress of what can already be an incredibly difficult time.”

Working with the team at Trinity Hospice Blackpool, she supports patients and their families who wish to have conversations about their care at end of life and support those who wish to die at home. She has worked with colleagues to develop a gentle guide to support those who are at the bedside of someone who is dying.

Councillor Sandra Thornberry, the council’s cabinet member with responsibility for arts, culture, leisure and wellbeing, said: “This special celebration of a hundred years will shine a spotlight on the rich history of our district while bringing together members of community groups, university students and experts, who will bring objects and stories alive through the podcasts.”

The celebration year will culminate in November 2023 enabling local people to vote for their favourite objects, which will result in a ‘100 favourite objects’ exhibition.

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