Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.

A Quick Guide to Leeds Burial Records

Harehills Cemetery, 1920. From Leodis.net

  • This Saturday 25 March, our Local and Family History department will have a stall at the Be Curious festival at the University of Leeds. We were kindly invited by the Brotherton Library’s Special Collections, who have recently made the records of Leeds General Cemetery available online…

British churches have been keeping registers of their baptisms, marriages and burials since 1538. At the Leeds Local and Family History Library, we hold copies for most of the city and a fair bit of Yorkshire. (You can see a full list on our website.) It used to be the case that, to trace a family’s history, you’d need to choose a likely parish register and go through each entry, looking for names and dates that fitted the family tree. Nowadays, thanks to various family history websites, it can be much easier to hone in on a particular record, so most people prefer to start by searching Ancestry (which is free to access in all Leeds libraries) and Family Search.

Burial registers themselves usually give the deceased’s name, age, address, and the name of a relation. Quite often, the earlier registers are little more than a barely-decipherable list of names and dates – meaning that you may never truly know if they refer to the ‘right’ person or simply someone else with the same name – but, by and large, they remain the only source of information on the deaths of ordinary folk centuries back.

By the start of the Victorian era, churchyards in Leeds were mostly full, and finding a place to bury someone was becoming a major problem. The city’s first municipal cemetery (i.e. one not operated by a church) was opened in 1835 at St. George’s Field, Woodhouse, by the Leeds General Cemetery Company. This was followed ten years later by Beckett Street Cemetery in Burmantofts, which was provided by the Leeds Corporation to help ease the growing issue of what to do with the dead.

  • Woodhouse Cemetery has been largely cleared of headstones but still exists within the grounds of the University of Leeds. In this case, the entire original burial records can be searched online.
  • For Beckett Street Cemetery records, the best place to start is our printed list of burials, indexed by surname and split into consecrated and unconsecrated sections. The index provides burial and grave numbers that can be used to find further details from our microfiche records and a map of grave locations. We also have a detailed map of the whole cemetery. If you plan on visiting, you may also find it useful to contact the Friends of Beckett Street Cemetery.

Leeds Local and Family History Library holds microfilmed copies of most of the records for the rest of the municipal cemeteries in Leeds. These list burials by date and usually give the name, address and age of the deceased, along with plot details. We also have printed name indexes for Woodhouse, Beckett Street and Hunslet Cemeteries. The Council’s Bereavement Services department keeps the original cemetery records at Farnley Hall, and can also be contacted to arrange a cemetery visit or request a search.

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Upper and Lower Wortley Cemetery (undated). From Leodis.net

In the case of burials outside the Church of England, a large portion of these records have unfortunately not survived. However, we have a limited selection of ‘non-conformist’ burial records available at the Local and Family History Library on microform, including some Quaker, Methodist, and even older Catholic records.

Catholic Burial Records

For enquiries regarding all aspects of Catholic baptisms, marriages and burials, contact the Leeds Diocesan Archives. Killingbeck Cemetery in East Leeds is the main Catholic burial ground. Its register is not publically available but is party indexed by the Yorkshire Indexers, a group of local transcribers. (Full access to their website is by subscription only but you can access it for free in Leeds libraries.)

Jewish Burial Records

Information about Jewish cemeteries in Leeds can be found online, in the Leeds section of the International Jewish Cemetery Project website. A further database of Leeds burial records can be found at JCR-UK, the Jewish Communities & Records website.

Newspaper Notices

Another very useful source of information about deaths and burials is local newspapers. If you have a date of death it’s worth checking these for obituaries or death notices in the days afterwards. A death announcement will usually give details of funeral services and interments and often other family member names. Here at Local and Family History we hold a large archive of local papers and can help you get started in your search.

Good luck with your research and email us at localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk if you need any further advice.