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    Auction Finds

    Documents of death in a box lot of papers

    “Transportation Of Dead Bodies.” The words snapped me to attention as I edged around the auction table to take a closer look at the box lot of papers. Someone had placed the official-looking document flat and neat inside a clear plastic freezer bag, and in doing so had preserved it.

    It was a 1905 health form permitting the transfer of the body of a 24-year-old Maryland woman from a hospital. I started going through the other papers in the box and saw that they all pertained to deaths and funerals, and included booklets for the purchase of caskets and funeral supplies. One was a letter pertaining to a sick man on the verge of death and the removal of his body from a boarding home.

    I wondered who had collected them. Were they the death papers of a family who had decided to hold on to them? Or a collector of the macabre?

    Two documents from the box: A body transport paper (left) and an upcoming training session in 1894 on embalming.

    Two documents from the box: A body transport paper (left) and an upcoming training session in 1894 on embalming.

    I suspect that it was a collector, and I could see why he or she was intrigued by the papers. I’d never seen a body-transport document before, and I decided that I’d bid on the lot. This was not the first time I’d seen documents pertaining to death, which I find interesting because they give us a peephole into how death was perceived and handled in the past.

    The official transportation document made me wonder about the rules surrounding the process of moving bodies. So, I Googled and found an 1893 report from the state Board of Health to the Pennsylvania legislature.

    The regulations stipulated that each body for removal must have a certificate of death signed by a physician, along with a certificate from the undertaker or shipper showing that the body had been prepared for transport. The report included a transit permit that was different from the one at auction.

    death documents

    A burial permit from 1907 was among the death papers.

    The transportation of bodies of people who died from Asiatic cholera, small pox, typhus fever, diphtheria or yellow fever (the city of Philadelphia had survived a massive yellow fever outbreak in 1793) was “strictly forbidden.” From October 15 to April 1, the report said, all “dead bodies” could be transported without restrictions, except for people who died of scarlet fever, typhoid fever or measles.

    From April 1 to October 15, bodies – including those of people who had died of those infectious diseases – must be transported in air-tight wooden boxes with zinc, copper or lead lining, or in iron caskets. If they were in a coffin, it must be hermetically sealed, according to the report. I can only assume that the rules were relaxed during the fall and winter because of the cooler temperatures.

    It seemed that most states operated under similar regulations.

    death documents

    A letter informing recipient of the impending death of a roomer at a boarding house and the removal of his body.

    The box of death papers at auction also included another interesting document: a letter alerting the recipient of the imminent death of a boarder in a home in Maryland. In two hours after the man died, the boarding-house owner wanted him put in an “ice casket.”

    “… suppose they will want a coffin to take him down on the train,” the owner wrote, “so be prepared as I will be obliged to move him at once as I have so many other boarders and they do not like a corpse in the house.”

    When bidding opened on the documents, I was certain that they would not go quietly. They were too unusual to bypass; I watched as several bidders went after them. I had planned to spend no more than 10 bucks, so I didn’t even bother to jump in. The box lot sold for more than $50.

    The funeral home document on the left shows the purchase of a casket.

    The document on the left shows the purchase of a casket for $59. The one on the right shows the purchase and repair of two Boston rockers by an undertaking company that also sold “antiques, reproductions and cedar chests.”

    The buyer told me that he bought the papers because, like me, he though they were bizarre. He sells on eBay, he said, and would try to unload them there.

    Later, he came over to show me something he had found interesting on the transportation document (which I had totally missed since I did not read it thoroughly). He pointed to a spot opposite “The cause of death being,” and I saw that the physician had written “abortion (by self).” I looked at the document even closer and saw that the woman had died at a hospital, likely of complications from a self-abortion.

    She had ended her pregnancy during a time when abortions were illegal, and campaigns and rhetoric against them were rampant. They were outlawed in the 1880s, except to save the life of the mother. Once banned, only those with money had access to a clean and safe place to have them. Others, presumably women like this 24-year-old, had to resort to potentially deadly devices or seek the services of a doctor who performed them less safely and cheaply. Roe v. Wade changed that in 1973, giving women the right to choose, but the struggle continues.

    death document

    An up-close view of the death document shows the woman died of complications from a self-abortion.

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    1 Comment

    1. I found a similar Transportation of a Dead Body Transit Permit dated 1909 at a local estate auction. In this case a local name from Price’s Fork, Virginia died at John Hopkins in Baltimore while being treated for tuberculosis and diphtheria. The casket had to be hermetically sealed due to fear of it being contagious. An interesting piece of family history. Dan

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