How the Poor (and Homeless) Die

Homeless encampment, Edinburgh cemetery

A powerful and classic (yet too little known) social justice writing by George Orwell is his autobiographical essay “How the Poor Die.” It should be required reading for all nursing and other health science students as it eloquently describes the experience of death and dying for poor and homeless people. Although the essay is based on his experiences, first as a poor patient on a public ward of a Paris hospital in 1929, and then back in England and Scotland (Glasgow) towards the end of WWII, there are echoes of truths in his observations that are relevant today. 

One of the most poignant parts of the essay describes “old numero 57” (patients were numbered, not named) lying—and dying—on a cot in the open ward next to Orwell. He writes, “They are treated like animals. They die alone, their organs already marked for a bottle in the museum, their bodies designated for dissection.” 

Orwell’s essay came back to me yesterday as I went in search of pauper’s grave sites in Edinburgh. From my research, it seems that there are thousands upon thousands of pauper’s graves in many of the town’s oldest remaining church cemeteries—such as St Cuthbert’s just below the Edinburgh Castle. They are buried in communal ( or, rather “mass”?) graves that are, of course, unmarked, and typically located in the now grassy central parts of the cemetery as shown in this photograph I took yesterday. There are older laws banning the grazing of sheep or cattle on these churchyard fields; current laws are posted banning all animals, including dogs (except for certified service animals). 

St Cuthbert churchyard

Edinburgh is infamous for its early to mid nineteenth century grave robbers, body snatchers, or “resurrection men” who dug up recently buried bodies of people and sold them to surgeons of the University of Edinburgh Medical School for their anatomy dissection. And then there were the body snatchers (and complicit surgeons) who took it even further, murdering poor and homeless men and women on the streets and in flophouses. People who died in poor/workhouses and public insane asylums and whose families did not claim (and pay for) their bodies were sold by the Overseers of the Poor to the medical schools for dissection. Is it any wonder that poor and homeless people have a well-founded fear of public hospitals and related institutions? 

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