Just a word out of place, that’s what caught my attention as I scanned through a register of deaths in Scotland for the year 1855.
I was looking for the death certificate of Aberdeen bookseller William McPherson, and was scanning down the register page when the word ‘naughty’ in the far-left column for ‘occupation’ stopped me in my tracks.
‘Naughty’ just does not belong on a death certificate. I have been doing this for nearly 30 years and I have never seen that word on any death certificate.
Death certificates are very officious documents: there are rules and regulations about the registering of deaths and the gathering of information to inform a death certificate.
Who writes naughty for an occupation of a deceased person, and why?
I figured it might be one of those ancient Scottish words that had gotten lost in translation to the English language but as I kept reading it hit me: the deceased was not an adult, it was a child.
A one-year old child.
Some poor parents’ little darling heart.
Yet with this one word ‘naughty ‘, this deceased child was given an enduring identity.
Naughty is an effective word, every exasperated parent uses at some point in time to describe their active toddler (though they are really just venting their parental frustration and exhaustion).
Naughty surpasses language barriers, it is familiar to everyone in any community and in any nation, even for those without children of their own.
Naughty is the child who thrusts a half-eaten offering at a stranger and laughs at the look of horror on their face.
Naughty is the child who relentlessly resists the word No, but has no qualms about using it ad nauseam till his/herparents wilt.
And naughty is the child whose eyes light with mischief just before they jab your eyeball or draw on the wall whilst you instruct them not: who chases the cat relentlessly despite your plaintive pleas, and who flees mid-nappy change leaving a parent so exhausted they surrender to one minutes peace rather than give chase.
But naughty is also a parent’s reassurance that their child is growing well and strong, and is learning to negotiate the world they will inherit, albeit on their own terms.
Naughty is that common word every parent understands, it tells of love and exasperation for a child that rules both home and heart.
So in 1855 when laborer Andrew Smith described his one-year old son George as ‘naughty’ any parent will smile with understanding.
Except Andrew Smith was burying his son.
And yet with this one word – naughty- he changes his little George from being more than just a 19th century child statistic, to instead giving his child a perpetual identity.
What is most surprising is that Registrar allowed it.
Scotland’s death certificates sit right up alongside Australia’s for being the best in the world when it comes to comprehensive information on a family unit.
One-year old George Smith’s death was registered on the 2nd of May 1855 in the parish of Old Machar, in the burg of Aberdeen by John Leask, Registrar.
Leask’s was an official role, he was an agent of the Government and there were strict rules to follow in noting information on death certificates. There were fines for deaths not registered within the allowable time frames. Every death certificate had its own issued number. And there were fourteen columns to the death certificate which were to be filled in truthfully.
So why did registrar John Leask allow a one-year old child to be attributed an ‘occupation’ let alone one that was not an official capacity.
Was it sympathy for the grieving parent, were the two men related, was Leask related to the child (as an uncle or godparent)? Had Leask himself lost a child and understood the father’s pain, maybe thought it was best to allow the father to give his son a perpetual. Or was John Leask so empathetic in his role, so understanding that death is tied up with eternal loss of identity, that it was just his non-official way of lightening a father’s grief?
Little George’s death occurred at 8 am on the 1st of May 1855 and was initially attributed to ‘teething’. But three weeks later his death was certified by surgeon R.M Erskine as being due to tuberculosis. Erskine had last visited George on the 30th of April, the evening before the child’s death. Why certification took so long is uncertain, but it suggests George’s father insisted on knowing what really caused his son’s death.
Andrew Smith described himself as a boiler-maker’s laborer. I can almost imagine him standing resolute, his stained working-man’s hands crossed firmly as he insisted on knowing what happened to his little child. I can picture him too, tasked with the duty of being the informant for George’s death certificate: maybe it took place at the kitchen table like so many others did.
Registrar John Leask had 14 columns to fill: the first is numbered #241 – the number of little George’s death certificate: The second was the Name, Rank, Profession or Occupation of the deceased, and here it is noted ‘Smith, George. Naughty’.
According to Andrew Smith he and his wife Mary Herd were the parents of little George, who had died at the family home in 32 Maberly Street, Aberdeen but was born at 9 Skene Square. There are blank columns – little George had no opportunity to marry and have children. In the column for burial place it is noted that George was buried in Spital Cemetery, but as no undertaker certified the burial it is probable Andrew Smith had that grim task to manage also.
George Smith’s death certificate was registered on the 2nd May 1855 but an addendum was added three weeks later on the 22nd May by the surgeon Erskine, so it is almost certain that Andrew and Mary Smith wanted certainty as to their son’s death cause.
It is said that the hardest thing any parent does it to bury their own child. Many years ago my best-friend Deirdre and her partner Bruce had to bury a child not much older than little George: I remember the absolute shock of watching a father carry a tiny little white coffin into the church. The reality that a living child had passed really hit hard. I remember nothing else of the service because I cried non-stop throughout. Many years later I asked Deirdre how they found the courage to literally carry their deceased child. She looked me square in the eye and said that they had brought this child into the world, they wanted to be the last to see him over to the next world, that this was the last time they would hold their child in their arms.
When Andrew Smith described his son as naughty he wasn’t just a doting father: he revealed himself as a Dad, that man who will always do the hard stuff because of – and for their child. The one who really knows their child, despite life’s hard grind. A man who cared enough to refuse to allow death define his son.
I hope it gave him comfort in later years, I hope that as love for their child finally outweighed the grief of his death maybe Andrew and Mary Smith could have wee, wry smile about this working-man Dad who was naughty enough himself to insist on an occupation for their son George.
And I do hope someone will inscribe Naughty on my death certificate or at least my final resting place: and that there is an official like John Leask to allow it happen.