A Global History of Child Death

Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes

by Amy J. Catalano (Author)
©2015 Monographs XII, 175 Pages


Drawing from primary research studies in archaeology, historical analysis, literature, and art this interdisciplinary look at the history of child funerary practices and other vehicles of parental mourning is the only book of its kind. The purpose of this work is to investigate the ways in which funerary behaviors and grieving differ between cultures and across time; from prehistory to modern history. Philippe Aries, the French childhood historian, argued that children were rarely mourned upon their deaths as child death was a frequent and expected event, especially in the Middle Ages. This book draws upon archaeological reports, secondary data analysis, and analysis of literature, photography and artwork to refute, and in some cases support, Aries’s claim. Organized in two parts, Part One begins with a chapter on the causes of childhood mortality and the steps taken to prevent it, followed by chapters on prehistory, ancient civilizations, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the early modern and late modern eras. The chapters in Part Two discuss indicators of parental concern at a child’s death: naming practices, replacement strategy, baptism, consolation literature, and artwork. Students who focus on the psychological aspects of death, funeral practices, and childhood histories will find this book a useful and comprehensive tool for examining how children have been mourned since prehistory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Parental Attitudes toward Children
  • Part I: Mortality and Burial Practices through History
  • 1 A Brief History of Child Mortality
  • Institutionalized Children
  • Abandonment and Illegitimacy
  • Burial Clubs
  • Breastfeeding and Wet Nurses
  • Wealth and Mortality
  • Conflict
  • Parent Education Level
  • Other Causes of Mortality in Europe
  • Parent Education, Child Rearing, and Other Examples of Actions Taken to Improve Mortality
  • 2 Burial Pits and Ivory Beads: Prehistoric Children
  • The First Children
  • Burial Rituals
  • Burial Places
  • Monuments
  • Cillini
  • Burials in Homes
  • Jar Burials
  • Status of Children in Burials
  • Infanticide among Prehistoric Groups
  • 3 Burials at Night: Children from Ancient Civilizations
  • Evidence of Parental Concern
  • Romans
  • Ancient Athens
  • Anglo Saxons
  • Sacrifice and Infanticide in the Ancient World
  • Child Sacrifice in Ancient American Civilizations
  • Vikings
  • 4 Collateral of the Plague: Children of the Middle Ages and Renaissance
  • Effects of the Black Death
  • Abandonment and Infanticide in Medieval Europe
  • The Crusades
  • Medieval Islam
  • Medieval Ireland
  • The Renaissance
  • Noble Children of the Renaissance
  • 5 Ambivalence, Christianity, Slavery, and the Devil: America and England in the 17th to 20th Centuries
  • Divine Providence
  • Responsibility for Child Mortality
  • Colonial and Victorian Era Grief
  • Women’s Writings
  • Grieving Victorian Mothers
  • Treatment of the Stillborn
  • Grave Stones, Epitaphs, and Burials
  • Slave Children
  • Burial Practices for Slave Children
  • Newsboys
  • Funerals and Mourning Dress in the Nineteenth Century
  • Causes of Death in Nineteenth Century England
  • Accusations of Infanticide
  • 6 Modern Times: The Psychology of Grief
  • Consolation and Grief
  • Children’s Funerals and Religious Beliefs
  • Treatment of Stillborn Infants
  • Grieving Nurses Who Care for Dying Children
  • Euthanasia
  • Euthanasia by the Nazis
  • High Child Mortality in the Modern World: The Case of the Women of the Alto
  • Day of the Dead in Mexico
  • Sandy Hook and School Shootings
  • Modern Conflict and War
  • 7 Indigenous Peoples of the World: Symbolism in Grief
  • Native North Americans
  • Tribes of Africa
  • Infanticide among Indigenous Groups
  • South America
  • Oceania
  • North American Indians
  • Tribes of Africa
  • Burial Places
  • Part II: Indicators of Parental Attitudes toward Child Death
  • 8 Indicators of Parental Concern: Naming and Replacement
  • Naming in Different Cultures and Time Periods
  • Colonial Uganda and the Zulu of South Africa
  • Replacement
  • HIV and Replacement in Zimbabwe
  • The Replacement Child
  • 9 Consolation Literature: Sympathy Letters, Poetry, and Books on Parental Grief
  • Plutarch’s Consolation Letter to His Wife
  • Consolation Manuals for Parents
  • Poetry
  • Medieval Islam
  • Jan of Poland’s Laments
  • Lutheran Consolation Poetry in Modern Germany
  • Yiddish Holocaust Lullabies
  • Nineteenth Century England and America
  • Modern Consolation
  • 10 Visual Representations of Child Death: Artwork and Photographs
  • Representation of Children in Art
  • Memorial Photography
  • 11 Infanticide and Child Sacrifice: An Overview
  • Causes and Reasons for Infanticide
  • Disability as a Reason for Infanticide
  • Law and Punishment for Infanticide
  • A Brief History of Infanticide in Different Cultures and Time Periods
  • Infant and Child Sacrifice
  • Notes
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3
  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6
  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9
  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • References
  • Index



To my colleague Gloria Grant Roberson for the title, and for encouraging me to continue writing and researching. To my colleagues at Hofstra University in both the library and the School of Education for their support and kindness. To Lynne Catalano, Tony Catalano, Emily Schwartz, and Sophia Cianciulli who read various drafts of this work and provided valuable input. To my husband Jon for helping with the children and housework so that I could take time to work on this book. To Dr. Ben Potter who graciously offered me advice on terminology and earlier drafts of Chapter 2. To the chair of my department, Georgina Martorella, for her enthusiastic support.

Credit is due to the following for allowing me to reprint portions of poems:

Aaron Kramer, The Last Lullaby: Poetry from the Holocaust (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 34, 39. © SUP. Reproduced with Permission from the Publisher.

Barbara Crooker, The Lost Children (1984), Reproduced with Permission from the Author. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →



Parental Attitudes toward Children

When Aries proposed that in cultures and historical eras where a large percentage of children did not live to see their first or second birthday, parents were often indifferent to the death of a child. He states that this is an “inevitable direct consequence of the demographic situation of that time”.1 Some researchers examining familial histories have come to a similar conclusion. Yet in the last thirty years others have come to criticize this view, which at times has been based on selective data, as well as interpretations based on modern views of parent-child relationships.2 Evidence of parental attitudes toward their children is vast and diverse. For example, diaries of colonial Americans reveal deep affection for one’s children, while other evidence appears to reflect ambivalence. The widespread practice of infanticide from prehistory to the present is also indicative of the complexity of parental grief and concern.

This book aims to examine the culture of parent-child relationships, and more specifically parental concern for the child, by investigating the mortuary behavior associated with a child’s death. The scope of this book is global. Funerary behavior is observed from the Prehistoric to Modern era. The thesis of this book is not to claim that parental grief over a child’s death indicates parental concern. Rather, I seek to provide a layered perspective of the complex feelings parents demonstrated toward their children in different cultures, in different historical eras, and through ← 1 | 2 → particular situations within those time periods. Parental concern has been examined by many historians and a brief review of this research is discussed here. It provides us with a context within which to place views of child death.

Aries’ view of children in the medieval period may be explained by the perception that children were considered to be “little adults”, a view in contention with more recent research.3 He asserts that children were “mixed in” with adults as soon as they could fare without their caregivers—around the age of seven. Aries also claims that there was no recognized period for childhood and adolescence because there were no words for it.4 Children, however, had toys and play was their first profession. Childhood, and all that goes with it, was recognized as a stage in the “life of man” and it may be inferred, nurtured. Children were protected and mourned when they died, even those that were unknown. Barbara Hanawalt counters the assumption that there was general callousness toward a child’s death in medieval London, for example, with evidence to the contrary. In some cases, dead children abandoned in a London church were offered a proper burial by wealthy members of the church.5 Perhaps impoverished parents anticipated this generosity in their act of desertion.

While Aries’ thesis focuses on the Middle Ages in France, it is generalized toward the entire West. More recently, Shorter claims “‘Good mothering is an invention of modernization’…children were held in such low esteem that they were not even regarded as human…’ Nor did these mothers often see their infants as human beings with the same capacities for joy and pain- as they themselves’”.6 We will find that this claim is absurd given the opposing evidence in many societies throughout history. While one may infer that these attitudes toward children, supported by Aries and Shorter, were indicative of only societies where child mortality rates were high, child and infant mortality has been elevated up until the conventions of modern medicine in the industrialized world. In fact, Pollock asserts that the high rate of infant mortality increased anxiety over a child’s death rather than facilitated ambivalence.7

McLaughlin and Lyman both counter Aries’ claims that there was no appreciation of childhood. Lyman believes that “up till the 8th century parents were ambivalent towards their offspring, viewing them both as a pleasure and an integral part of family life, as well as a ‘bother’.” The latter was more often the standard perspective. McLaughlin, studying children from the 9th to 13th centuries, claimed that there were “clear signs of tenderness toward infants and small children… [and] awareness of their need for love”.8

The evidence of ill-treatment of children is copious. Grief demonstrated by a parent over the death of his or her child did not necessarily reflect love for the ← 2 | 3 → child while alive. Morelli, in admonishment to the parent who grieves over the death of child, says “You loved him but never used your love to make him happy; you treated him more like a stranger than a son; you never gave him an hour of rest…You never kissed him when he wanted it; you wore him out at school and with many harsh blows”.9 deMause explains that it is not love that parents lacked for their children, but emotional maturity to see that children did not exist to project the needs of the parent.10

Pollock, among other historians, notes that grief over the death of an older child is far greater than that for an infant. It appears that while parental distress over the death of an infant was often expressed, many parents resigned themselves to the fact that most children would ultimately die in infancy. Slater, in his study of child death in the Puritan era (New England, 1620–1720) states that “parental apprehensiveness about death had a different quality [than that of modern society]. Mothers and fathers genuinely expected to lose some of their babies. The Puritans saw infants passing away at a disheartening rate, fragile, death-prone beings.”11 In the Puritan era, one of every ten infants died, whereas presently in the United States six infants (under the age of 1) die for every 1000 live births.12 Further, while parents of any era may grieve copiously at the first child death, they may exhibit more steadfastness in the presence of other deaths.

Some historians have also failed to consider the different causes of seemingly negligent behavior toward a child by a parent as a product of social class. For example, a medieval peasant mother who leaves her children dirty may be deemed a careless parent. However, such actions, interpreted through the lens of farming society in the Middle Ages, may be read as an attempt to keep malevolent spirits from the child and thus death.13 Conversely, poor women who had to work may have had no other option but to leave their infants and children alone or bring them to work. In one case, a medieval woman brought her child to work only to have it beaten so severely by the apprentice that it died two days later.14

Another often misunderstood indicator of ambivalence toward children is the lack of burial rites for infants. Rawson states that reasons for the absence of memorialization for infants under one or two years old is that in “most, perhaps all, societies, a child is not considered a ‘real’ person until it has developed certain functions” such as the ability to walk or speak.15 The high rate of neonatal deaths in ancient and medieval societies, as well as in modern third world countries, is often cast as a reason for emotional distance from infants. This theme is peddled over and over again by historians; however, more recent research on infant death in high mortality societies indicates that grief over the deaths of the very young is very real.16 ← 3 | 4 →


XII, 175
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
archaeology literature mourning baptism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 175 pp.

Biographical notes

Amy J. Catalano (Author)

Amy J. Catalano is an associate professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York. As a research librarian and expert in children’s literature, she works primarily with education students and studies how children and adolescents learn in various contexts. She earned her doctorate in teaching and learning with a specialization in human development at Hofstra University. In addition to studying how students learn, Dr. Catalano studies parent-child relationships both in contemporary society and historically.


Title: A Global History of Child Death
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189 pages