Tombstone size and life expectancy: a cross-sectional analysis of cemetery data before the turn of the century

Abstract

The extent to which socioeconomic status was associated with life expectancy in the 19th and early part of the twentieth century is poorly understood. We sought to determine the association between a deceased individual’s tombstone size, a potential marker of socioeconomic status, and their age of death in the late modern period. We conducted a cross-sectional study of 276 deceased individuals buried between 1820 and 1992 in a large cemetery in Quebec, Canada. The main outcome measure was age of death. We used generalized linear models adjusted for sex, marital status, and year of death to determine whether tombstone height and volume were associated with a greater number of years lived. Tombstone height and volume were associated with an older age of death in adjusted regression models. Individuals with tall tombstones lived 9.6 years longer than those with short tombstones (95% confidence interval, CI 3.9 to 15.4). Individuals with large volume tombstones lived 6.2 years longer than those with small tombstones (95% CI 1.7 to 10.8). Our findings indicate that in the 1800s and early 1900s, tombstone size was strongly associated with age of death. A possible explanation for this occurrence is that wealthy individuals, capable of purchasing more sizeable tombstones, were more likely to live a longer and healthier life.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé (career award 34695).

Funding

This study was supported by the Fonds de recherche du Québec-Santé (career award 34695).

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SKA conceived and designed the study. SKA, MKA, GKA, and NA collected the data. AA analyzed the data, with input from SKA and NA. MKA and GKA helped interpret the results. SKA and AA drafted the manuscript, and MKA, GKA, and NA critically revised it for important intellectual content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nathalie Auger.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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The University of Montreal Hospital Centre indicated that ethics review was not needed. Participants were deceased and could not provide informed consent.

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Kang-Auger, S., Kang-Auger, M., Kang-Auger, G. et al. Tombstone size and life expectancy: a cross-sectional analysis of cemetery data before the turn of the century. Eur J Epidemiol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-021-00724-w

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Keywords

  • Death
  • Life expectancy
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Tombstone
  • Wealth