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Guest Post: ‘As Arranged’

By: Anne (U.K.) - June 09, 2010

My grandmother died unexpectedly, at the age of 78, when I was 18. My father, then in his late 50s, came home on the night of her death in what struck us as a very emotional state, even considering the circumstances. This was a man who refused to discuss his wartime experiences, had only once taken time off work for illness during my lifetime, a man whose working life had been spent taking responsibility, a man to whom everyone else in his extended family turned when there was unpleasant business to address. He was utterly devastated. As he sat at the table to make a show of attempting to eat the meal my mother had saved for him, he simply said:

‘I had a little brother and sister and I only found out about them today.’

The recently converted genealogist in me pricked up her ears, and prepared for one of those ‘seize the moment no matter how inappropriate it may be’ inquisitions, much to the disapproval of my mother, who never felt comfortable with my researches.

‘They died when I was 2. A little boy and a little girl, they were twins like me, and they died very young. I didn’t know anything about them but I found a receipt for them when I was looking through your Nan’s papers. They never told me.’

A ‘receipt’? For dead children? He must have meant ‘certificate,’ surely. However, even I could see this was not the moment to press further, so, hastily recording the conversation, we grieved for my grandmother.

Fast forward several years, when, whilst seriously researching the family tree, I hunted high and low one summer through every repository available, to find some record of these children. There was no sign of them – it was as though they had never existed. By this point my parents, retired themselves, had moved to live with my grandfather, as he was by this time almost 90, increasingly deaf, and unable to manage alone. Conversation with him was difficult, and exhausting, and usually left me hoarse after each visit. Due to his deafness, it was impossible to speak particularly privately, although I longed to ask about the missing babies, the receipt, and to record the story for posterity.

One day in the public library I chanced upon a book which contained photos of the town in which he had grown up. Victorian and Edwardian Ramsgate in Pictures suddenly struck me as a way to communicate with him on my next visit, so the book was borrowed, and carefully packed for my next visit to the family home. Upon seeing the book, Grandad’s eyes lit up, and he took it to his room, returning an hour later to recount tales of the men he recognised in the photos, stories of lifeboat heroism, and showing me photos in the book of unnamed lifeboatmen who just happened to be my great x2 and great x3 grandfathers! ‘Result!’ I thought, as he told me more of his life as a child and his memories of the men now staring back at me from the pages of this book, my kindred dead about whom I had previously known only their names and dates of major life events. This was one of those rare genealogical goldmine days. My notebook overflowed with the human details which make family history so rewarding, and I felt overwhelmed with admiration for their bravery. Then suddenly, out of the blue, he said: ‘I thought you might like to see this. We had two babies who died, your dad’s brother and sister.’ My heart started to beat rapidly.

‘Oh really?’ was my response, frantically overdoing the ‘wide eyed and innocent’ look.

‘Yes,’ he said in his Kentish twang. ‘They were born when your dad and his sister were 2, and your auntie was 4. I only had daily work, it was 1923, and I had to get up in the middle of the night to go and stand at the docks by the River (Thames) to wait for any daily work going. I couldn’t earn enough money to feed everyone properly, so your Nan, she went without because if I didn’t eat, we would starve. In this state she gave birth to a little boy and girl; they were born early, they never stood a chance. We named them after us because we knew they wouldn’t live long. Your Nan nearly died giving birth, and the babies, well, we had to save your Nan because who else would look after the other children? The little boy died first, he was 10 days old. I had to wrap him up in paper and string and put him in a shopping bag and took him down to the local undertaker, and give him some money, and then he took the baby to put it in a coffin to be buried with an adult.’

I must have looked horrified at this, so he added ‘Times were hard. We didn’t have the money to get their births registered, which was illegal; I was scared if the police found out, I would go to prison. It happened a lot, where people were too poor to pay for a funeral of a baby; they gave the baby to the undertaker, and he would slip the baby into a coffin with an adult, and the baby would get a burial, and no-one would know.’

He continued:

‘The little girl lived for 3 weeks. She died in my arms as I tried to warm her under the gas jet, but she died anyway, so I said to your Nan, ‘She’s gone too’ and I had to wrap her in paper and string and put her in a bag and take her to the undertaker. He said to me ‘Same again?’ and I said ‘Yes please’ and paid him and he took her. When I got home, your Nan was ill in bed and I said ‘Well that’s that then’ and we never spoke of it again.’

He pushed two pieces of paper across the table at me, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand as he did so. They were indeed receipts, from an undertaker:

Telephone: HOP 1007
11 Old Kent Road
Mr Gambrell, London SE1 April 27 1923
Dr to W. Knox
Furnishing Undertaker, Funeral Carriage and Motor Hearse Proprietor
The favour of your recommendation earnestly requested

(handwritten)

To the burial of Wilfred George Gambrell
aged 10 days, Nunhead
as arranged

rec’d by cash 12/6
W. Knox
27.4.23

and again:

Telephone HOP1007
11 Old Kent Road

Mr Gambrell, London SE1 May 1st 1923
Dr to W. Knox
Furnishing undertaker, Funeral Carriage and Motor Hearse Proprietor
The favour of your recommendation earnestly requested

(handwritten)

To the burial of the late Florence Minnie Gambrell who passed away May 1st 1923 aged 3 weeks.
Coffin, conveyance to Nunhead Cemetery as arranged: £1.00

Rec’d by cash
W. Knox
1/5/1923

I tried frantically to remember the information in front of me, but it was impossible; quickly he picked up the receipts, walked away to his room, and the next time I saw them was some years later, after his death, when my parents had sorted through his papers. Reading them again, the irony of the phrase ‘as arranged’ struck me; nothing in writing to incriminate either Mr. Knox the undertaker or the grieving relative. It’s impossible to know how many other babies of similarly poverty- stricken parents had been conveyed to their final resting place in the company of a wealthier adult, ‘as arranged’ by parents distraught yet desperate enough to break the law to give their child a Christian burial. Mr. Knox the undertaker, previously in my mind the villain of the piece, now became something greater: a man who was prepared to risk his livelihood to provide a service unattainable to many. It was a marvel too, that the only records of their existence had survived for 70 years through house removals and enemy action, a silent yet essential testament to the mortal lives of two precious spirits who were never referred to within the family they were born into.

Babies Wilfred and Florence were probably more fortunate than many of the other anonymous burials, though: thirty years after the death of my grandmother, after the dramatic night when my father had learned that he had a little brother and sister of whom nothing had ever been spoken, I sat in a sealing room in the Preston Temple. For some reason, the sealer stopped mid session, and, as I was preparing to participate, asked me to explain to the assembled workers and patrons why I had reserved two cards in particular for my personal use; and, having told their sad story, their names were read out, and there was joy in the room as two little babies, undocumented elsewhere, identified only by cash receipts from an undertaker, were sealed to their parents and siblings.

‘As arranged.’



44 Comments »

  1. Words fail. A heartbreaking story, with a joyful end.

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Anne.

    (And now I’ll go dry my eyes so I can see what I’m typing.)

    Comment by Mark B. — June 9, 2010 @ 8:03 am

  2. What an amazing story. Thank you, Anne.

    Comment by Researcher — June 9, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  3. That was a powerful story. Thanks. Like Mark B. I’m sitting here at work with tears running down my face. But it ddoes make you wonder how many lirttle ones were lost in this manner in those days. I do believe my HF keeps count and all will be well with them and their families in the end.

    Comment by Mex Davis — June 9, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  4. Beautiful. Anne, thank you for sharing your wonderful story. It was very touching.

    Comment by brandt — June 9, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  5. Wow. Heartbreaking and beautiful both. I just thought I’d read this quick before beginning work, but now I’m just sitting here contemplating.

    Thanks for sharing, Anne.

    Comment by Martin — June 9, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  6. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 9, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  7. Wow. Such a powerful and heart-breaking story and so well-told.

    BTW–I love the idea of using a book of photos to prompt all those stories. Great idea.

    Comment by ESO — June 9, 2010 @ 11:10 am

  8. What a perfectly miraculous account, Anne. Thanks for sharing it in such loving detail.

    Comment by Alison — June 9, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  9. Wow. I’m sitting here at work and can’t stop thinking about it. What a heart breaking situation for your grandparents, but what a wonderful ending to the story – that they are now properly and eternally sealed to their family. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    Comment by Meghan M. — June 9, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  10. Thank you all for your kind words.Wasn’t sure if this was too personal a family history story to be of interest to anyone else!

    I have wondered for years how any of the parents in this situation coped with the knowledge that their children were secreted away to an undertaker, and buried with a complete stranger, in a grave unknown to the parents. So harsh.Nowhere to grieve.

    If anyone is interested, the story continued as follows:

    The family had no more children, but the three children they had, miraculously all survived. When the babies died the family were all living above a warehouse overlooking London Bridge (the one now in Arizona).In the late 1920’s the family was removed under a slum clearance programme to a house (in what was then the country but on the outskirts of London) with a huge garden,big enough for Grandad to grow veggies to supplement the family income. All the grown up children and Grandad served throughout the Second World War and survived without a scratch between them, although my grandmother, anticipating the worst, kept a photo album throughout that time which was shown to me as a special treat as a child- thus, I am sure, triggering my lifelong interest in family history. The children married, had children and grandchildren of their own, and lived long and useful lives. Grandad died aged 95, several years after the death of his childhood sweetheart, whom he missed so much.I participated in their sealing in the Copenhagen Temple in 2006.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — June 9, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  11. Ahh, Anne, just when the puffiness had left my eyes, you go and add your postscript …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  12. I’ve been thinking about why Anne’s post has so much power to move readers outside her family circle, besides being just plumb well written, of course. I think it’s because it’s both the story of a specific family (so that we we can grieve with the parents and share Anne’s father’s shock and Anne’s own joy), but also the story of uncounted others whom we never knew existed until this moment: that magnifies the story immeasurably. And for a Mormon audience who can marvel that these receipts survived to preserve the identity of these twins, we can have hope that the memory and identity of those countless other unrecorded lives is preserved outside of this world so that those other families will one day be complete.

    Anyway, that’s my attempt to explain my bone-deep response to this story.

    Do you other readers have personal-yet-universal stories to share? You’re invited to send potential posts to keepapitchinin at AOL dotcom. It may not be possible to post everything, but there are clearly wonderful stories in the backgrounds of Keepa readers. Please share them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  13. Thank you, Anne. Truly a wonderful story.

    Comment by kevinf — June 9, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  14. Thank you.

    Comment by Amy — June 9, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  15. What a beautiful story, Anne, thank you for sharing it. As Ardis says, there are some universal elements to it, and it’s these kinds of stories that make me such a fan of temples.

    Comment by ellen — June 9, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  16. Simply extraordinary.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 9, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

  17. I don’t really have words to express the way reading this makes me feel. Thank you for recording and sharing this.

    Comment by danithew — June 9, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  18. Anne, Thank you for sharing this powerful story of your family. It is amazing that although nothing was ever mentioned in the family about the two babies, the receipts were carefully preserved. I will ponder this story for a long time.

    Comment by Maurine — June 9, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

  19. Wow! What a touching story. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — June 9, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

  20. Beautiful.

    Comment by Tracy M — June 9, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

  21. Amazing.

    Comment by Aaron Brown — June 10, 2010 @ 12:23 am

  22. Let me add as well, thank you.

    Comment by Vada — June 10, 2010 @ 1:07 am

  23. A story worth remembering. Thank you for sharing it :)

    Comment by Paradox — June 10, 2010 @ 2:21 am

  24. What a beautiful story that is so touching and personal…it teaches so much about the history of the time and what a depression really is and what poverty means.

    I am glad to see I wasn’t the only one crying..having twins and now being quite pregnant…the emotions those parents must have gone through. What a healing process sealings can bring to vslidate the real pain of the loss of tiny babies.

    Comment by britt k — June 10, 2010 @ 7:45 am

  25. Awesome story. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by bbell — June 10, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  26. What a story. Did the parents know which adults’ caskets held their children? I can imagine two quiet strangers sitting in the back at their funerals.
    .
    This is particularly poignant for sister manaen and me because we’ve spent much of our recent time entering her deceased family members for temple work. (Sister manaen is a recent convert very much exercised to liberate them from spirit prison). It’s been an expanding experience for multi-generation-LDS/BIC me to be part of my wife’s parents’ temple blessings.
    .
    Possibly more significantly, we recently submitted the name of sis. manaen’s childless and only-child friend who took her own life in the 1970s.

    Comment by manaen — June 10, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  27. Very powerful and beautiful. Thank you for posting this.

    Comment by john f. — June 10, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  28. Thank you all again.

    Manaen: No, they had no idea whatsoever where the babies would end up.I haven’t looked into it at all, but the way I understood it, the undertaker would just wait until he had an opportunity, and pop the children into a coffin once he knew the coffin would not be opened again. It’s highly possible that more than one baby at any one time could have been popped into an adult coffin, depending on the number of babies who required a burial, I suppose. the way my grandfather recounted the story, he lost any say over what happened to the bodies once they were handed over to the undertaker.

    I often wonder what he did with the shopping bag afterwards. I hope the undertaker took it too.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — June 10, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  29. Thank you for sharing…Wow! This really motivates me to keep going on doing my genealogy. It highlights what this wonderful and marvelous work is really all about, saving all of our Heavenly Father’s children.

    Comment by Cliff Morgan — June 10, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  30. What a beautiful story! Thank you, so much, for sharing this tender and intimate family story. It introduced me to a topic (infant deaths and secret burials in 1920’s England) that I knew nothing about.

    Comment by Patricia Lahtinen — June 10, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  31. lovely–it’s amazing how those small miracles of information can touch your heartstrings and connect you with a name, a soul.

    Comment by anita — June 10, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

  32. It should be in the Ensign. Please submit it.

    Comment by Bookslinger — June 10, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  33. Well there’s not much to say, is there. Wow.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — June 10, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

  34. My son sent me the link this morning and I read this profound love story as I was preparing to attend the funeral of a three-month-old 2nd great nephew who died two days ago, SIDS. The story has been much on my mind all day, played-out over and over against the backdrop of a beautiful, sunny south Louisiana cemetery, flowers, family, a kindly Catholic priest, and solicitous cemetery workers. Mr. Knox, the undertaker – not the villain as you pointed out — is really an angel of mercy. He did for that family that which they desired with all their hearts but which they could not do for themselves. I feel to be better, do more good, serve more, love more, ‘mourn with those that mourn’ more and repent more so that when I approach my Rescuer, He will let me pass ‘as arranged.’ Thank you so much for sharing this story and for the thoughtful insights I am still pondering.

    Comment by Louise Hilton Jeter — June 10, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

  35. Thanks for your story. I have a older brother who died when he was around three weeks old in the 1950’s. He was buried with an adult lady who had died. There is no record of his burial in the cemetery. I was never told the lady’s name so I do not know where his grave is.
    These special spirits are safe in Heaven and I am so thankful for the gospel.

    Comment by Hera — June 11, 2010 @ 2:24 am

  36. Wow! This is simply an amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing it! I cannot even imagine the heartbreak for your grandparents – especially never being able to speak of them for fear of recrimination and never even knowing where the babies were buried to visit their graves and hallow their memory. Oh what joy to hear of their sealing! What a miracle that the receipts remained in possession all of those long years! – congratulations on being featured in the MormonTimes BBB today! Many people get to read and be inspired today!

    Comment by MoSop — June 11, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  37. What a miraculous story–and what a privilege to read it. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been reading many such inspirational stories recently, and each one makes me realize just how close the spirit world can be.

    Comment by Anne Bradshaw — June 12, 2010 @ 7:55 am

  38. Thank you so much for sharing your story. What a blessing the undertaker was for all the families in the same situation. We can all learn from his example.

    You have touched me so much with this story.

    Comment by Stephanie Spackman — June 12, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  39. Anne, thank you for sharing this. I somehow missed this when you submitted it a few years ago, but glad I just stumbled across it. Wonderful tender mercy.

    Comment by peter Fagg — April 12, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  40. What an amazing and touching story! Thank you so much for sharing this Anne!

    Comment by Jana Last — September 17, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  41. What a sad story, but very common in built-up areas where the people were poor and couldn’t afford to register births and deaths and pay for a funeral. I’m sure there were a lot of kind-hearted undertakers, and thank goodness your grandmother pulled through. “As arranged”.

    Comment by Jo Graham — September 18, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  42. Thank you. I will be sharing this, (by link) along with the link to Anne’s site, on my blog tomorrow evening. Anne, Thank you for sharing your family’s story. Ardis, thank you for creating Keepa as a site for the past to connect with now. Truly, you are turning hearts to our fathers.

    (The post will go up @6:00 pm, on Sept 19, 2012, if you would like to see it. I tried to send Anne an email, but wasn’t able to find one on her profile. I did leave a comment on the blog she links to in her comment. :-) I hope lots more people will find their way to this beautiful story of loss, love and service. poetrysansonions.blogspot.com )

    Comment by Julia — September 19, 2012 @ 12:40 am

  43. Heart full.

    Comment by Sarah Dunster — April 2, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

  44. SO touching. This story says an awful lot about poverty in our society – How those living outside of it view poverty (treating those who are just trying to survive as criminals), the hard choices of survival made by those in it, and the quiet courage both of those in poverty and of those trying to help.

    Comment by andrew h — April 3, 2014 @ 1:04 pm

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