Why Have Infants Been Buried this Way?

Archaeological records show that when infants die, their burial is often absent, simple, or segregated from burial grounds of others in their community. This trend, along with exceptions, is best explained by a view based on psychology-based theories. These theories suggest that these burial practices depend on the different ways people emotionally handle the death of their child, the community they are in, and society's expectation of the way they should react to this loss.

McMaster Researcher


Cannon, A., & Cook, K. (2015). Infant death and the archaeology of grief. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 25(2), 399-416. doi:10.1017/S0959774315000049

What is this research about?

There is currently no clear theory that explains the absence, segregation or simplicity of infant burials in history. In addition, previous discussions on this topic did not consider reasons behind the process of change in these burial practices over time or the individual variations from these general ways of burying dead infants. Since emotions motivate human action, they should be a key to understanding these observations. The purpose of this research is to provide a theory that relates the emotion of grief to the way people have buried their dead infant children in the past.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers from McMaster University’s Department of Anthropology and University of York (UK)’s Department of Archaeology used a psychology-based view to explain trends, variations, and changes in ways infants have been buried throughout history. This psychology-based view involves two theories that relate the different ways parents cope with the loss of their child to the actions they take in response to this loss. They then applied this theory in a case study of Victorian-era infant burial practices in villages in rural south Cambridgeshire, England. The data used in this study come from census, baptisms, and burial and monument inscription records from that era.

What did the researchers find?

Applying the psychological approach to the case study involving Cambridgeshire, the researchers found that:

  • People's wealth is not the main driver for the way they bury their dead infant.
  • The infant mortality rate has little effect on how attached parents are to their infants. Mortality rates also have little direct effect on the manner in which people bury their dead infant.

The general conclusion is that

  • Parents’ reaction to the death of their infant child is determined by the way they cope with the loss of their child, their social community, and societal expectations.
  • After the death of their infant child, some individuals may wish to move on with their lives instead of trying to remember the loss. Others may focus on this loss and do little to move forward with their lives. Some individuals may be able to do both at different times in response to this loss.
  • Societal expectations for the way people should express grief can change based on external circumstances. For example, decreases in infant mortality rates (rate of death of infants) and smaller family sizes in the late Victorian era reduced the frequency of infant death and burial, which led to greater acceptance of public displays of grief in response to infant death.

How can you use this research?

Although the conclusions made in the article are specific to the Cambridgeshire study, the principals used to interpret the results can be used to explain changes in infant burial practices elsewhere. These practices depend on changes in specific conditions related to the individual or social experience of grief. For example, this view can also be used to explain the recent increase in commemoration of stillbirths in Western Europe and North America. Similar to the decreased infant mortality rate in late Victorian England, there has been a dramatic decrease in the incidence of stillbirths between 1928 and 1998. Using the principals from this research, the increase in commemoration of stillbirths can be explained by increased acceptance of public displays of grief due to the decreased incidence of stillbirths.

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