By Leslie Albrecht Huber
If you have researched your family in Europe, you have probably learned to rely heavily on parish records. These invaluable sources provide the information for the three basic events that occurred in people’s lives – birth, marriage, and death. However, of the three types of parish records, many people quickly assign death records a place of much less importance than the other types. Although it’s very difficult to continue tracing your family back without a birth or marriage record, you can sometimes proceed without knowing when and where your ancestor died.
However, death records can provide much more beneficial information than just the death date and place. Death records can supply a lot of other vital genealogical clues, as well as provide interesting insights into your ancestors’ lives. By understanding a little about the context of death in Europe in the nineteenth century and earlier and by carefully extracting all the information from the record, you may find this undervalued source tells you more than you ever expected.
When They Died
Death records can be difficult to find. This is partly because of the large period a researcher may need to search. Birth and marriage records usually fall within a predictable window of time. However, our ancestors, or particularly their siblings of whom we often know little about, could have died anywhere from the same day on which they were born until the time they were quite old. But while it’s true that death struck people of all ages, it hit certain age groups harder than others. Knowledge of these vulnerable groups can help focus your search.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while searching for death records is that many of our ancestors died young. One writer around the end of the eighteenth century concluded that only seventy-eight out of one thousand people would die old of age. The rest would die before their time and by chance. In Germany, for example, the average life expectancy remained below thirty well into the 1800s. You will find many of your ancestors’ death records within a few years of their birth. High infant mortality rates plagued communities throughout Europe until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even in the middle of the 1800s, a quarter of all babies born in many European countries died before their first birthday. At the start of the nineteenth century in France, less than one half of children lived to be ten years old.
Another group hit hard by death was women who were bearing children. Childbirth presented serious hazards to both the mother and child. In the mid 1700s, there were about 1,000 to 1,200 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Given that the average woman had about five or six children, the cumulative probability of dying during childbirth came to between five and ten percent.
Of course, death rates varied over time and place. Northwestern European countries tended to have lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancies than their southern and eastern counterparts. By the last few decades of the nineteenth century, people throughout Europe began living longer. Some historians attribute this to the decrease in epidemic diseases and to medical advances. However, most feel that improvements in living conditions, particularly improvements in the diets of the lower class, may have had an even greater impact. In addition, more knowledge about hygiene and public sanitation lowered death rates, especially in the cities.
Why They Died
Understanding the causes of our ancestors’ deaths gives us insights into the illnesses and other problems that plagued their lives. Although many death records include the cause of death, understanding what killed your ancestors may still be difficult. Different types of disease predominated in earlier times. Even those still rampant today were categorized and labeled differently.
Part of this confusion was due to the inconsistent and poor quality of care in the countryside. Many peasants died without seeing a doctor. One study of rural France, for example, concluded that 2.4 licensed doctors served 10,000 people. Peasants in the countryside usually couldn’t afford the services of doctors even when they were available. Instead, someone in the community considered knowledgeable about health and medicine or often just other family members diagnosed and treated illnesses. Even when doctors visited, they often didn’t identify diseases correctly.
Especially before the nineteenth century, epidemic diseases wreaked devastation on many communities. After outbreaks of the plague subsided in 1720, smallpox took the lead as the most lethal epidemic disease, hitting small children particularly hard. A vaccine developed at the end of the century finally decreased its effects. Typhoid fever and other contagious diseases may have claimed the lives of several family members in one tragic sweep through the family. Chest infections were also a leading killer, with pneumonia and other serious infections overcoming people of all ages. Accidents occurred among both the old and young as well. Vague descriptions such as “old age” or “childhood illness” were commonly used to describe little understood causes of death.
Society’s View of Death
In some ways, death was much different for our ancestors than it is for us today. Death was more visible, since people died in their homes instead of at distant hospitals. Many more people experienced the death of young family members. Yet despite its prevalence, death was still devastating. Some historians have suggested that the frequency of early death only made illness more stressful, instead of making death easier to cope with.
Religion greatly affected the way our ancestors experienced and perceived death. Services for the dead were held in the local church, and most people were buried in the churchyard. Religious beliefs provided comfort to grieving family members. Many firmly believed, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” They found peace in the teaching that small, innocent children were certain to return to heaven. Here, they could enjoy a more peaceful and happier existence.
High death rates affected society and family formation in fundamental ways. Despite the almost complete absence of divorce among peasant families, remarriages and blended families were common. Many people lost a spouse at a young age. Yet, providing for a family demanded two parents. Because of this, remarriages occurred quickly, usually within less than two years of a spouse’s death. This meant that a large number of children lived with a stepparent. High death rates also kept family sizes smaller and decreased the number of elderly people in the community.
What the Records Tell Us
As with any record, the amount and quality of information included in death records varies greatly. Some death records, particularly ones from the eighteenth century and before, contain a bare minimum of information. However, in other cases, death records can provide an abundance of useful information.
Death records also vary widely in readability. Sometimes pastors or clerks recorded information in neat, predictable columns. Other records are nearly illegible, with sloppy, faded paragraphs that differ in content from one person to the next. Knowing what type of information to expect can help make deciphering the record easier. Below are some of the main types of information found in death records.
Name of Person. Although this would seem to be the most standard piece of information, some records actually don’t even give the name of the deceased person. For children or even wives, some early records give only the name of the husband or father. For example, one might state, “On January 25, 1765, Friederich Tiedemann’s son died and was buried.” Records such as this make it difficult to even determine whom the record is for.
Death and Burial Dates. Nearly all records will contain one, if not both, of these dates. The burial date is nearly always within a few days of the death date.
Age. The most important thing to know about this commonly included piece of information is that it’s often not correct. However, it’s usually not more than a few years off. Sometimes the pastor or clerk recording the information just guessed the person’s age. Other times the surviving family members or neighbors may not have even known exactly how old the person was. Particularly for older people, don’t be too concerned if the age is a few years different than what you expected. Surprisingly, even records that include the age calculated to the nearest month, and sometimes day, can still be wrong. In addition, you m ay occasionally find a death record that has the date of birth of the deceased person.
Names of Family Members. Many death records provide some information about family members. Death records of children may include the name of the father, and sometimes the mother also. Records for adults, especially for women, may contain the name of the spouse. A few pastors and clerks routinely wrote down the names of parents, no matter what the age of the person who died. This information verifies that you have the record for the correct person. It can also sometimes serve as vital evidence linking generations together, perhaps providing the names of parents for the first time. The record may also provide additional details about family members, such as maiden names for women, places of residence, or occupations.
Residence. In most areas, every little village did not have its own church. Instead, one church served several neighboring villages. Death records, then, will include people who lived in a number of different villages. Many death records list the person’s place of residence at the time of death. Sometimes this will appear in a separate column, or perhaps, it will just be written by the person’s name, reading something like, “Lisbeth Nilsdotter, of Vallby.”
Occupation. Another useful and interesting piece of information often included in death records of adult men is their occupation. Knowing the occupation provides interesting insight into your ancestors’ lives as well as helps ensure you’ve found the right record. Sometimes for older men, the record may label him as a “widower” or “old-timer” instead of giving an actual occupation. Many landowning peasants passed on their homestead and farm to a child, but remained living at the home, effectively in retirement. These men technically didn’t work or have an occupation anymore. Other poorer peasants worked as long as they could, even right up until their death.
Cause of Death or Illness. As discussed in a previous section, the cause of death is found in many records. This can provide a rare and interesting glimpse into your ancestors’ lives.
Other Details. Besides the expected information, there is always the chance that the parish pastor or clerk included something extra. Sometimes the recorder noted who performed the service. Other times, unusual details about the death are included. For example, the death record of one of my ancestors from September of 1830, states that shortly after Christmas of the previous year, someone found my ancestor outside on a very cold day. She had gotten lost in a snowstorm on her way to another town. Although she lived a number of months longer, she was always sick and never fully recovered. Another one of my ancestors’ death records explains that the parish poor house supported the old man at the end of his life.
Take time to look for your ancestors’ death records. You may find that you learn a lot more about your ancestor than simply the day that he or she died.