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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes

Treatment of the Stillborn

The lack of documentation of stillbirths in history is a limitation of demographic research. Some researchers postulate that this lack of recording is indicative of attitudes toward neonates. Many disposed stillborn children were found buried in very shallow graves in marginal areas. The nature of these burials allows for the resting places to be disturbed by land developers and scavenging animals. In Scotland the body of a stillborn child was easily disposed of. Often Scottish children, who died within twenty-four hours of birth, were submitted to undertakers to be buried as a stillborn because the burial was cheap, quick, and did not require a funeral service. Some unscrupulous funeral directors would falsify burial certificates in order to save the reputation of a mother who had given birth to an illegitimate child. By noting that a child was stillborn, when in fact the child died soon after birth, would relieve any speculation of infanticide (even if the mother had indeed killed her newborn). Single mothers who gave birth to living children, who soon died, were often accused of infanticide. Additionally, sometimes, in order to save money, two bodies were buried in one coffin. The lack of government regulation over births facilitated these practices, and caused a significant underreporting of births, and gross acts of covering up infanticide. In order to mitigate the effects of similar behaviors in their countries, both France and England adopted systems of requiring birth registration within three days of a baby’s arrival. Single women in particular did not wish to see their “mistakes” or “sins” registered in the public record. The Registration of Still-Births Act in Scotland came to pass in 1939, which required that a doctor or midwife provide a cause of death on the death certificate of any stillborn child after the 28th week of gestation. This act subsequently raised the status of neonates during the early 20th century.16

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