Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stayin' Alive

Yeah, it's not a very imaginative title. Anyway . . .

I live in a small New England town. The town center consists of a general store, a one-woman post office, a Congregational Church, a Catholic Church, the town hall, and an auto/tractor/whatever repair business. That's pretty much what it was 200 years ago, except that the auto/tractor/whatever business would have been the blacksmith. About a mile down the road is the old cemetery, which stopped taking new customers shortly after the Civil War.

Some history and genealogy buffs have made an inventory of the headstones, and the result is very relevant to the main concerns of Stayin' Alive. The list is in alphabetical order, which is almost as good as random, I guess. Here are some excerpts.

Adams, Mary, wife of Captain Thomas Adams, died Sept. 17, 1814, age 76
Allen, infant daughter of Asahel & Desire, died Apr. 23, 1772, age 4 days
Allen, infant son of Ezra & Lydia, died June 11, 1804, age 14 days
Allen, Anna, wife of Levi, died Mar. 5, 1834, age 23 yrs
Allen, Asahel, died Mar. 19, 1825, age 82 yrs
Allen, Charles H., son of Joseph R. & Susan M. Allen, died May 21, 1855, age 9 mos
Allen, Charlotte, wife of Erastus, died Jan. 2, 1875, age 86 yrs
Allen, Deziah, wife of Asahel, died Nov. 2, 1820, age 75, footstone
Allen, Erastus, died Aug. 28, 1856, age 74 yrs
Allen, Ezra, died Aug. 23, 1852, age 77 yrs
Allen, Joseph, died Aug. 28, 1815, age 76 yrs
Allen, Lydia, wife of Ezra Allen, died Mar. 10, 1855, age 70, footstone
Allen, Rebecca, relict of Joseph, died Nov. 17, 1819, age 87, footstone
Avery, infant daughter of Alfred & Fanny, died Oct. 24, 1853, age 2 mos
Avery, infant daughter of Alfred & Fanny S., died Oct. 24, 1853, age 2 mos 4 days

Bass, Betsey, wife of John Bass, died Jan. 9, 1837, age 42
Bass, Captain Ebenezer, Revolutionary War stone, died Mar. 6, 1814, age 67 yrs
Bass, Eunice, wife of John Bass, died Nov. 12, 1820, age 25 yrs
Bass, John, died Sept. 30, 1865, age 78 yrs 11 mos, footstone
Bass, John, son of John & Betsey, died Dec. 24, 1833, age 16 mos
Bass, Nancy, wife of Nathan Bass, died Nov. 23, 1834, age 44 yrs, footstone
Bass, Nathan, born Apr. 15, 1792, died Oct. 8, 1856, footstone
Bass, Ruth, relict of Captain Ebenezer, died Dec. 27, 1834, age 86
Bass, Ruth, daughter of Captain Ebenezer, died Nov. 21, 1794, age 1
Bingham, infant son of Gamaliel, died Nov. 30, 1804, age 3 wks

And it goes on like that. You will, I hope, notice something interesting. Lots of people lived to what we would today consider a respectable age, well into their 80s (there are a few in the 90s which I didn't happen to capture in the cut and paste), mid 70s is a typical age of death. But what is different from today is the many infants and children, and the women of child bearing age. These people were farmers and local artisans, for the most part, and the place was sparsely populated. In the cities, I expect there was more opportunity for infectious disease to carry off young adults and the middle aged. But out here, if you made it past age 4 or so, you could expect to get your three score and ten unless you died in childbirth. (There are a few men killed in the Civil War on the list, but that was a brief interlude in this story.)

This is a point I have made here before, but now we have a very clear and evocative illustration. The tremendous gains in life expectancy we experienced in the past century had little to do with extending old age and almost everything to do with actually getting there. Ruth Bass lived to be 86, but her daughter died at age 1, while her son lived to be nearly 79 and her grandson died at 16 months, while her daughter-in-law died at age 25, quite likely in childbirth. That was life in the good old days.

1 comment:

Reid said...

This death pattern has been common for centuries. In Sweden, where births and deaths have been recorded universally since the early 1700s, the Age Dependent Death Rate has been a J shaped curve. The infant (1 y.o.) mortality rate was as high as 30%, mortality for both sexes reached a minimum near age 13, and lifetimes for some exceeded 80 years. There is an interesting bump in male death rate for 20 y.o. This pattern is also applicable way back into the "Iron Age" as determined by "ageing" skeletons from prehistoric European burial sites.