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Death and Burial
  Records relating to death and burial in Scottish archives are used by a wide variety of researchers, including genealogists, social historians, demographers, and medical historians. Registration of death by civil authorities began in Scotland in 1855. From then until the present, it has been mandatory for deaths of individuals to be registered with civil registrars. Prior to 1855, apart from the Church, very few corporate bodies were interested in recording deaths per se, and records of burials or some other aspect of death, such as succession to property after death, are more common. The Scottish system of investigating sudden deaths differs from the system of coroner's inquests in England and Wales. Sudden deaths in Scotland are investigated by procurators fiscal (local state-funded prosecutors). Since 1895 sheriff courts have carried out Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAI) in certain cases.



Disposal of the dead
From medieval times until the mid-19th century the disposal of the dead was carried out almost exclusively by burial in churchyards. In the 18th century, secession churches and other sects (such as Quakers), particularly in larger burghs, opened their own burial grounds. In some towns there were separate burial grounds for the Town’s Hospital (or poorhouse), and for certain burgh organisations, such as merchants or trade incorporations. By the mid-19th century many churchyards were full, and burial had become a public health concern, especially following outbreaks of smallpox, typhus and cholera. The problem of overcrowding was partly solved by the emergence of commercial cemeteries; the first being the Necropolis in Glasgow, opened in 1833. In the second half of the 19th century many municipal cemeteries were opened by burghs and civil parishes. Responsibility for burial grounds (including churchyards) was placed on parish councils under the 1894 Local Government (Scotland) Act, and on the districts of county councils under the 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act. Scotland’s first crematorium was built in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis in 1895. Others opened in the late-1930s in Dundee, Aberdeen, Paisley, and Leith. In the 1950s and 60s municipal crematoria were built in many parts of Scotland. For further information about cremation click here. Body-snatching was a relatively brief phenomenon in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, effectively stamped out by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Succession to property after death
Property in Scotland is divided into heritable property (land, buildings etc) and movable property (cash, clothing, goods etc). Succession to (and disposal of) heritable and movable property in Scotland was quite strictly controlled until fairly recent times times. For further information see the Knowledge Base entry on Property Records. For further information on Wills and Testaments go to the Scottish Documents website.

Other related SCAN entries
Death and Burial records
Burke and Hare

Dane Love, Scottish Kirkyards (Robert Hale Ltd, London, 1989); Anne Gordon, Death is for the Living (Edinburgh, 1984); Andrew Martin (compiler), Scottish Endings: writings on death (Edinburgh, 1996); Margaret Bennet, Scottish Customs from Cradle to Grave (Edinburgh, 1992); Michael T R B Turnbull, The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide (Edinburgh, 1991); Jimmy Black, The Glasgow Graveyard Guide (Edinburgh, 1992); Norman Adams, Dead and Buried: The Horrible History of Body Snatching (Aberdeen University Press, 1972); Cecil Sinclair, Jock Tamsons Bairns: a history of the records of the GROS (Edinburgh, 2000).

There are illustrations of many types of gravestones, mortsafes on the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What was a mortcloth?

2. Where should I look for information about, or records of, mortcloths?

3. What was a mortsafe?

4. What was a morthouse?

5. What was a watch box?

6. Where should I look for information about, or records of, mortsafes, morthouses or watch boxes?

7. Where should I look for information about, or records of, churchyard watching societies?

8. Do records of coroners’ inquests survive in Scotland?

9. What is a bill of mortality?

Photograph of gravestone in the Howff
Image of a gravestone in the Howff, a burial ground in Dundee (image courtesy of Dundee City Libraries). A searchable index of the Howff's burial records can be found on the website of the Friends of Dundee City Archives.