The thing about paupers’ graves is that if one of your ancestors was buried in such a place you would probably never find out. For the most part those interred there were unknown, as well as being poor.
Some individuals will have been named, those that were known but whose surviving families, if there were any, did not have sufficient resources to pay for a funeral or burying fees.
Almost every municipality or ecclesiastical district, throughout centuries, has set aside places to bury those who could not be identified. During major epidemics in the middle ages, mass burials occurred of those who had succumbed to disease. Many did not have families left to mourn and remained unnamed. The burial grounds may not even have been marked. We are finding a few today in urban areas undergoing renewal.
Even today, cities and towns set aside plots for paupers or unknown people. You need only do a local search of cemeteries for pauper burials to find them. Occasionally news reports surface about old graveyards with paupers and unknown people buried in them. Here is a sample of news reports from recent years:
· Tragedy of 100,000 buried in paupers’ graves over past five years – Vanessa Allen – Daily Mail 28 November 2011, London “At least 100,000 pensioners who died penniless and alone have been buried in paupers’ graves in the past five years, a charity revealed yesterday. . . Such paupers’ mass graves conjure an image of Dickensian poverty. But this has become the reality for some of the 40,000 people a year in Britain who receive state-funded funerals – of which about 21,000 are pensioners.”
· Third world America: Bodies driven to a pauper's burial in a U-Haul as tough economic times lead to more mass graves – Daily Mail 19 January 2012 “The pauper's burial section at Homewood Memorial Gardens was established for those who could not afford to pay for a burial plot. And it is a problem that's sweeping America as tough economic times have led to an increase in the number of indigent burials the morgue must perform.”
· Pauper’s burials give dignity to all – Douglas Todd – Vancouver Sun 1 March 2015 “In this careful-to-not-offend era, however, ‘pauper’s burials’ are now technically called ‘ministry burials.’ That’s because B.C.’s Social Development Ministry handles the transportation of the corpse, cremation and burial. A lack of money in the deceased’s estate is the most common reason the B.C. government, and sometimes the federal pension plan, comes up with the several thousand dollars necessary to make possible a ministry burial.”
· New tribute to nearly 200 people buried in paupers’ grave… - Andrew Bardsley - Bolton News 12 January 2016, Greater Manchester “A new headstone has been organised, which features a message in tribute to those buried there. In addition, a book featuring the names of all of the 198 men, women and children to be buried at the site is being compiled.”
· Everyone is entitled to a funeral – Jennifer Hough – National Post 19 October 2014 “Provinces are spending millions of dollars every year to give thousands of Canadians a final sendoff — because no one else can or will.”
· Dying alone: Hundreds of bodies are going unclaimed in Ontario and Quebec – Leslie Young & Andrew Russell – Global News 22 February 2017 “According to a 2014 report from Ontario’s coroner, these individuals are mostly men and mostly older than 60.”
· Perth’s Elmwood cemetery dedicates paupers section of graveyard – Desmond Devoy – Perth Courier 5 December 2016 Ottawa Valley “More than 400 people who are believed to have worked, and died, during their time at the old Perth House of Industry, from 1903 to 1965, and were buried in what was essentially a ‘pauper’s’ section of the Elmwood Cemetery, now finally have their own headstone.”
· Funerals held each year for dozens of Calgarians who die alone – Monty Kruger – CBC News 28 May 2016 Calgary “They are the overlooked. The forgotten. The men and women here in Calgary who die unclaimed, whose passing goes all but unmarked. Sometimes we know their names, sometimes even that is a mystery.”
Those who died in workhouses and hospitals were often buried in unmarked graves. To the shame of some institutions, many children died while supposedly in their care and were ignominiously disposed of in mass graves, some without records to mark their passing or even their lives. Many were still-born babies of unwed mothers, shut away from public eyes in times when such conditions were scorned.
· Names of five more children buried in paupers' graves found – Aoife Barry - The Journal 6 April 2017 Dublin
· Memorial to Beverley Broadgate Hospital's paupers' graves unveiled – BBC News 6 October 2017 Humberside
There was probably an overlap between paupers’ and mass burial sites in centuries past when epidemics took hundreds of people in very short time periods. Many of them, such as plague victims in London in 1666, were also poor and ended up in burial pits. Some may have had their names written into parish registers, but thousands probably did not.
As an Online Parish Clerk, I have come across many burials of strangers or persons unknown who died while in the parish, or sailors found along a beach who died as a result of a shipwreck. The church took care of burying them but their names were never known.
Most genealogists use burial information as a prime source in assembling family history information. Without the final resting place known for their ancestors, the stories will always be incomplete.