Demography and the Possible

Living in New England, we have older cemeteries than most other areas of the country (though Eastern hemisphere readers might scoff at what Americans consider ‘old’). I frequently walk with my sons and nephew through a cemetery near my home, as it is a tranquil place away from traffic, where we can go through the woods and throw rocks in the pond. We do this so often that the headstones sometimes become little more than a forgotten backdrop.

However, I do make an effort to remind myself that these headstones are markers of actual human lives. One recently caught my attention, the story of Henry and Susan Battey. I have no knowledge who these individuals were what they looked like, where they lived — other than their names, vital statistics, and the names of their children. It is their children on the backside of the headstone that struck me. The Batteys had three children, losing all of them as infants. That occurs to me as nature (or poverty, or whatever the cause) at its most cruel and indifferent.

As Hans Rosling has stated repeatedly, life expectancy has improved dramatically for most of the world over the last 200 years. His website,, is a practical and visually beautiful way to explore statistical shifts in demography, economics, and health over time and geography (highly recommended). As far as one trusts the data, things really have gotten better for the world, at least by this metric, although wide gaps obviously remain between high and low income countries.

Still, as Rosling says in his highly entertaining style, the seemingly impossible is possible in making a better world. He also reminds us that the ultimate goal is not economic development itself. Rather, economic development is a means to the more important ends that give life meaning: health, dignity, culture, and happiness.

That reminder is important, as we try to keep simultaneously in mind both micro- and macro- perspectives, the big picture on a societal scale and the little details of individual lives. For example, in addressing the psychology of philanthropy, Nick Kristof notes that people are motivated to donate more by individual stories than by statistics (summarized by the maxim “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”).

I think of Henry and Susan Battey, or at least who I imagine them to be, and wonder how much pain and distress they endured with the early losses of all three of their children. To them, surely it would matter little that there would be an uptick in life expectancy in the U.S. a mere few decades after losing their children. Statistics and data are essential at understanding the way the world works, but the picture is incomplete without the context and meaning that individual lives and experiences provide.

2 thoughts on “Demography and the Possible

  1. Huh, Henry had two wives, both named Susan? (I’m assuming at different times and not that he had two at once.) And then named a daughter Susan. Interesting how the nomenclature of our society has also changed (e.g., very few people have daughters named after mothers, but very many have sons named after fathers).

    I routinely assign my undergraduates a project in which they collect demographic information from tombstones. The Old Chapel Hill cemetery (which is on UNC’s campus) works quite well to illustrate the change in life expectancy especially. They collect age-at-death info from 15 or so headstones from the older section (dating to the mid 19th century mostly) and then from 15 or so from the new section (up to the present day). Very rarely have their average ages-at-death not shown a dramatic increase in longevity. They like doing the math and getting a concrete picture of demographic changes with the advent of modern medicine: lower frequency of infant mortality, older people living longer, especially in a time without much war. I’m going to make my daughter do the project too, as soon as she’s old enough. 🙂

  2. Hi Kristina, the Susan thing occurred to me too. Odd pattern (I mean the two wives both having the same name, not the daughter being named after the mother). Your project sounds interesting, and I’m sure the students enjoy it. The archaeologists here at UMass Boston do something similar as well, but I don’t know all the specific details of the assignment. FYI, this headstone is mid-range in terms of age at the local cemetery. There is a section with much more recent graves and others that date to the early 1700s. Pretty neat. I found one where the person was born in the 1600s, but forget where it is. I’ll keep looking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.