1918: Influenza pandemic

Historians do not agree on the geographic origins of the influenza pandemic and an accurate measure of total global mortality is also disputed, although it is likely to be in excess of 10 million deaths. Globally, cases were being reported from late in 1917, with incidence accelerating rapidly from May of 1918. It is likely that this highly virulent mutation of the flu came to UK shores via servicemen arriving at ports: early cases were reported in Glasgow, Portsmouth, Southampton and Liverpool (Johnson, 2014). In the UK, the earliest wave, of Spring 1918, was relatively mild. Around two thirds of the pandemic deaths happened in its second wave, in October to December 1918, and a further quarter of pandemic deaths took place in early 1919.

The 1918 influenza pandemic spread rapidly in highly urbanised and overcrowded populations, through exhalatory secretions. There were, in total, over 150,000 excess deaths in England and Wales during the 46 weeks of the pandemic.

Little research has been completed on the local impacts of the pandemic on funeral services. The concentrated incidence of deaths overwhelmed hospital and public mortuary provision. Undertakers, inundated with work, began to refuse taking additional orders. The British Undertakers’ Association secured an agreement that funeral director staff serving in the Home Forces could be released early.

The Undertakers’ Journal reproduced correspondence from a Bradford informant:

‘Many dead are quite without immediate prospect of burial. The situation in some parts, owing to the side effects of the influenza epidemic, is almost beyond belief. It can easily be imagined that the difficulty of obtaining wood for coffins and the varied types of labour required in the undertaking business has been very acute owing to the war, and it was as much as undertakers could do to keep up with the demand when the death rate was normal. Now has come an epidemic of influenza which has raised the Bradford death rate from 9.2 in early October to 41.6 in mid-November, and undertakers simply cannot execute the orders that are flowing in’ (British Undertakers’ Journal, 15 December 1918).

Pressure on cemeteries was similarly acute. The Journal reported that ‘Mr. Robertson, of the City of London Cemetery, says he never knew anything like the pressure before. They, too, had to call for assistance from the military authorities; who sent them twenty men’ (British Undertakers’ Journal, 15 November 1918).

It is highly likely that cemetery records will carry some evidence of or comment on local experiences of the pandemic, particularly in its most acute phase in the final months of 1918.  

Additional reading

Johnson, N. (2014) Britain and the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic, London: Routledge.

This text offers valuable contextual reading for the pandemic, but does not consider in detail the local funeral service impacts.

British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.