The History of Leith

October 2, 2010

The Burial of the Poor in Past Times

The burial of the poor was the responsibility of the local parish Church and it wasn’t always done very kindly but sometimes there was good reason for it.

When a death took place in the Parish and there were no friends willing or able to pay the expenses of a funeral then it fell to the Kirk (Scottish for “Church”) Session to dispose of the body. In such an emergency the Kirk Treasurer was authorised to pay for a “Kist” (Coffin) the cost of which varied but did not exceed a few shillings as the minutes indicate. In 1745 the cost is stated at 4 shillings (20 pence) for adults and 2 shillings (10 pence) for juveniles. In earlier times bodies were not coffined at all but simply wrapped in a sheet or shroud and so put into the ground. This custom survived in some parts of Scotland down to the passing of the Poor Law in 1654. But so far as one can judge it was not reverted to at South Leith excepting under special circumstances. Thus in the plague of 1645 the Kirk Session ordained ” nane to gait dead kysts but those who are able to pay for them”. This was a practical measure due to the shortage of money and timber and necessary to bury the bodies quickly due to the plague which needless to say was extremely dangerous.

Later the common Bier is mentioned in the records and was sometimes called “the common mort kist” and according to the traditionary account this Parish (South Leith Parish Church) coffin was a closed box with the lid or one of its sides hung on hinges so that the contents of the coffin could be emptied into the grave. When the Poor Law camr into force in the 19th century the poor were provided with a coffin at public expense. There is a tale regarding a west-country parish where the burdens imposed by this Act were considered too generous to be borne and a Geddes Committee was appointed to suggest economies. The parish minister who possibly knew more about the subject than the other members on the board and perhaps had been reading his own registers suggested that a “slip” coffin should be used for the poor. This practical proposition however well meant met with opposition and was denounced by the public as a piece of cruel parsimony and the reverend gentleman went ever afterwards by the nick name of “Slip”

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