Recording and registering death
It was first felt necessary to record individual deaths nationwide in the reign of Henry VIII. In 1538 Thomas Cromwell, the King's minister, ordered parish clergy to keep registers containing details of baptisms, marriages and burials.
Parish registers to national registration
In London, beginning in the 17th century, information from registers was gathered and used to compile statistics which were known as bills of mortality.
By the 1830s Parliament was concerned about the difficulties of proving a birth or a death because up to that point people had to rely on parish registers which only recorded christenings and burials.
In 1833 an accurate general register was proposed and the Births and Deaths Registration Act in 1836 established a national network of registrars and centralised registration.
Although Parliament had taken this important step, the accuracy of registration remained well below what would be expected today. It was still fairly easy, for example, to conceal deaths in suspicious circumstances.
The 1836 Act did not require the cause of death to be certified by a medical practitioner, and stillbirths often went unrecorded. This was because until the Medical Register Act of 1858, doctors' qualifications were not defined, and so proper medical certification was impossible.
Scope for foul play
The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1874 tightened obvious loopholes. The doctor looking after someone during their last illness was required to certify the cause of death. All doubtful cases had to be referred to the coroner.
However, burial could still take place before a death certificate had been issued, which meant that a case of poisoning might remain undiscovered.
The 1893 select committee on stillbirth registration revealed that because stillbirths did not have to be registered, it was possible to misrepresent how a baby had died.
Eventually, in 1926, Parliament responded to the long-running campaign for stillbirth registration.
The same Act also made it unlawful to dispose of a dead body before a registrar's certificate or a coroner's order had been issued.
The present system of death certification requires either that a registered medical practitioner who attended the deceased during their last illness issues a medical certificate of the cause of death; or that the death is reported to the coroner who provides an appropriate certificate. There is a requirement for additional certification where the body is to be cremated but not when there is a burial.
A doctor's decision to certify the cause of death rather than to report the death to the coroner is not subject to any other check when the death is followed by a burial. The system of death certification was exploited by Harold Shipman who murdered a large number of his patients.
Parliament has now legislated to provide safeguards for all deaths which do not need to go to a coroner, although these provisions have not yet been brought into force. It is proposed that all deaths in England and Wales that do not require investigation by a coroner will be subject to scrutiny by independent medical examiners.
Page last updated 1st May 2014