Meaning of "in the 79th year of her age" on gravestone

+10 votes
Old gravestones often say something like he or she "died in the 79th year of his (or her) age."   Since the first year of our age means age 0-1, would 79th year of our age usually mean 78-79.  I've seen many people who would interpret this as meaning 79 years old (79-80), but is this what was usually meant back then?
in Genealogy Help by Kenneth Kinman G2G6 Mach 7 (75.0k points)

Kenneth, as a genealogist, I can say that you are absolutely correct that epitaphs inscribed "nth year of his[or her] age" were equivalent to an age of n-1. These were from an earlier era (generally 17th to early 18th century, with exceptions), and were later phased out, replaced by "age n," "aged n" or the actual age in years, months and days.

You also see the phrase in Wills, and other contemporary written documents of the past.

Similar to the way we look at centuries today---due to the fact that the years 1 through 100 were the first century, and the 2nd century started in the year 101---the people of the past considered birth through the first birthday to be the "first year of his age." The next day the individual would be "in his second year," even though the 2nd birthday was 364 days away. "In" did not mean completed.

Good examples are getting harder to find, because you need both a legible epitaph (or documents), and a known birthdate (i.e. not AE or 'about'). But in every case where said good examples were available, I have found that the actual age was equivalent to n-1.

9 Answers

+11 votes
I always take it as in your first version, ie. in the year after their 78th birthday, as this makes more sense, and usually seems to fit better with any other records.
by Joe Farler G2G6 Pilot (135k points)
It is what it has always meant-once you had your birthday, you are already in the next year of your age. If you had one ending in zero you are also entering the next decade.I will be 79 next month, and then starting my 80th year and the last year of my 8th decade.
I'm not mathematical enough to work all this out *grin*.  If someone "was in the 79th year of her age", I would think she was 79.

Let's take a person who is born on 1 Jan 1900. They turn 5 on 1 Jan 1905. Their age is 5, yet they have had 6 birthdays:

  1. 1900
  2. 1901
  3. 1902
  4. 1903
  5. 1904
  6. 1905

You would also have to consider location, as age reckoning in Asia is quite different:

  • In Japan, ancestors used "kazoedoshi" (数え年) in which their incremented one year on New Year's Day based on the Jōkyō calendar (貞享暦).
  • In Korea, it is common to find people who use both "man-nai" (만나이) meaning full age [equivalent to Western aging], and "sal" (살), where a person is one sal during the first calendar year of life, and ten sal during the tenth calendar year.

I disagree (although I admire and concur with your maths).

The birthday (the 'Happy Birthday' one) is a celebration of the fact that you were born.  It is an anniversary.  Therefore you cannot have a 1900 anniversary in your example.  You start having anniversaries of the day of your birth in 1901. So the person in your example has had one day when they were born, and 5 birthday-celebrations, not 6.

Think of a marriage.  You have the wedding day, then your first anniversary is a year after your wedding day.  Same thing.

So to clarify, they had 1 birth day (the actual event) and 5 celebrations. That still adds up to 6 laugh.

Interesting discussion but we are getting a bit too semantic here. There are indeed different ways to state a person's age, but only in English do we use the term "50th year" or whatever and it is most often found in obituaries and on memorials. The question was simply, how do we interpret the term on tombstones.
@Steve: not quite.  They had 1 birth day and 5 anniversaries.  As the day of birth and the anniversary of the day of birth are two different things, they had 5 anniversaries. :)

This is a common usage on gravestones and in old records.

Joe Farler is correct regarding its interpretation. It refers to the age at the next birthday. As soon as I turned 19, I was in my 20th year.

When the age is given in a format like AE 69, it has this same meaning: age at next birthday.

Ellen, this is not always the case. See my examples below.

Ellen, you are correct that "year of his age" is equivalent to an actual age of n-1. But I'm fairly certain that AE means "at the age of," so it is not the same thing.

+15 votes
You have to drop down 1 year to get their actual age.

 If she was in her 79th year, she was actually 78 at the time she died.

For example - My father died when he was 79. His death notice says he was in his 80th year...  (which can be confusing)
by Robynne Lozier G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
As another example - if an infant dies at age 11 months, they are NOT YET 1 year of age, but the death report could say that they were in their 1st year - which is true.

They were in their 1st year of life, but were not yet aged 1 year old.

Does that help explain it better?
+10 votes

I agree with Joe's interpretation.  Here is just one example where Elizabeth (Hutchinson) Chappell died "In the 85th year of her age."  Her exact birth date on (a birth date which I have verified) shows that she died about 4 months before her 85th birthday:

by Kenneth Kinman G2G6 Mach 7 (75.0k points)
+13 votes
You might compare it to the way we count centuries in our society. For example, the 20th century included years between 1900 and 1999. We are now in the 21st century with years beginning 20--.
by Shirley Dalton G2G6 Pilot (503k points)
exactly, it is not some esoteric reason, but simple mathematics. After your first birthday you are in your second year. So just extend that to the rest of your life, to everyone elses  and to the way our calendar works.
+6 votes

In the case of Martin Van Buren, an American statesman who served as the 8th President of the United States from 1837 to 1841 and founded the Democratic Party, his obituary reads:

Ex-President MARTIN VAN BUREN died at his residence at Lindenwold, at 2 o'clock this morning, in the 79th year of his age.

In this case, the "79th year of his age" means he was 79 (not yet reaching his 80th birthday). He was born 5 Dec 1782 and passed away on 24 July 1862: 79 years, 7 months, 20 days old.

In another case, let's take the gravestone of Josiah Leavitt Jr. Josiah was born on 28 Jul 1679 and died on 19 Dec 1717: aged 38 years, 4 months, 22 days old.

His headstone reads:

...39th year of his age

In short, this term can be used and applied in a number of ways, for example:

  • 0-1 = First year (in the case of Josiah)
  • 1-2 = First year (in the case of Martin)

Therefore, there can be no globally correct answer here. The only thing this term can provide you is a date range in which to focus your search for a birth date.

by Steven Harris G2G6 Pilot (587k points)
Mistakes are common now and they were common in the past. Newspaper articles are full of mistakes. That death notice for Van Buren probably was written within a few minutes of receiving the first telegraphed notice of his death, and a reporter made a mistake that ended up in print.

The fact that a word or expression is sometimes used incorrectly does not mean that the word or expression has no standard meaning.  This expression had -- and still has -- a standard meaning, and that meaning is "year of his/her life," which we can think of as age at next birthday.
Actually, there is a time-frame element to this issue. By the time Martin Van Buren died, people were using this term synonymously with "aged [x]," so that's where the mistake lies. My research in New England and New York State shows that the majority, at least, of instances of "AE" and "in [their] [x] year," they were used literally. This faded out during the 18th century and by the 19th, it appears most people didn't know the difference. There are many instances of published gravestone transcriptions that ignore the actual wording and say "aged [x]," which, for Colonial New England, at least, is problematic. Best to find the original where possible, of course.
+4 votes
My grandmother used to always say that to us... telling us that we were in (or starting) our 10th year of life, just after having our 9th birthday, for example.

I never understood her until many years later. I understand what she was saying to us, now. But it's confusing.
by Dennis Wheeler G2G6 Pilot (540k points)
+6 votes
People were often unsure of their actual age, and family members even less clear on the actual ages of those who had died at advanced ages. And sometimes ages were rounded up to the next year, even when the birth date was known. Unless you have solid evidence of a birth date and a death date, you can't really know how old someone was at his or her death.
by Stu Bloom G2G6 Mach 9 (94.5k points)
+3 votes

I will add to the other posts by saying it depends on the time-frame. The use of "AE" or "in [their] [x] year" was more literal in Colonial New England, at least. My research shows that in the 17th and early 18th centuries, it was nearly or completely literal, taking into account mistakes relatives might have made in giving someones age at death. As the 18th century progressed it became more and more synonymous with "aged [x]. It also was less and less used, "aged [x]" being favored. I only know from my experience researching in New England and New York State. By 1837, using the Martin Van Buren example, it's safe to say most if not all people thought of them as the same. I don't recall ever seeing instance of it being used in the 1800s in its literal meaning. I've seen many 19th and 20th century gravestone transcriptions that ignore AE and say "aged."

by Doug Sinclair G2G1 (1.4k points)
0 votes
I think this is just an old fashioned way of saying your age, as soon as my grandma had a birthday she would tell you she was in her next year. e.g. after her 71st birthday, she would tell you she was in her 72nd year if you asked her age.

I think it also depends where you come from as some, perhaps all, of the Vietnamese people give their age from conception, rather than from birth.
by Christine Frost G2G6 Pilot (132k points)

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