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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Of the three basic elements of church records (BMDs), the burial (death) record is the most elusive. Burial records have always been viewed as less important, for one thing because they do not involve a sacrament.
Canada has cold winters in most every part of the country, which means that interment may not have taken place when the ground was frozen and plot preparation was impossible. Most cemeteries had a winter vault facility where the deceased rest until a spring thaw. The date of such an interment does not affect the date of death or the date of the funeral.
Even in archival settings, burials have been viewed as lesser beings. In the 1940s when the Newfoundland government was trying to collect church records and requested transcriptions to be made of registers, burials were omitted. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Genealogical Society of Utah began work on the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which has now grown to tens of millions of names, they chose to have material on births and marriages, but not deaths. A Family History Center manager, asked why this was, replied, “Well, we know everybody died, don’t we?”
This is a rather short view of the needs of the genealogical researcher, who is bound to find that death records in general and burial records in particular are necessary, even if we do not care when the individual died. Death dates can establish the existence (or not) of people in a certain place and time, and thus answer genealogical questions.
For example, if we are searching for the birth of an ancestor in a locale and we find baptisms for two children of the same name, we are then faced with the question: which is the ancestor? A death record search might reveal that one of the babies died as a child, leaving the other to be the likely ancestor.
So, genealogists realize the value of burials but are faced with the fact that the records are often badly kept, incomplete or simply missing. The only choice is to enjoy those which are actually available.
First, keep in mind that these are burials and not deaths. Few of them in the early days record the day of death. If no other document exists which describes the actual day, we may have to settle for a burial date in our BMD summation of a person’s life.
Some genealogists have been known to assume that a known burial date indicates a death date of two or four days before, based on modern practice or what they know of other funerals. This is really unacceptable. Different places, different times and different denominations had different habits, and we have no way of knowing what those might be decades later.
Also, even individual circumstances might differ. A woman died on 20 February 1881 and her funeral was planned for 25 February. Her brother died of the same ailment on 22 February, and the family sensibly held a joint funeral on 25 February. There is no predicting this situation.
What Will Burial Records Tell Us?
The plainest burial record will include the person’s name and date of burial. Others may add age, profession, residence, the name of a relation and place of burial. The most valuable ‘extra’ which burial records include is the cause of death. In records which predate civil registration (where the death certificate might tell you the cause of death), this is very useful.
If other relatives are mentioned in a burial record it is probably because the dead person is a child (father is named) or a wife (husband is named).
The example of a burial record comes from the Grand View (Manitoba) Presbyterian records. The woman’s name is given as ‘Mrs. Cruckshanks’, showing a late instance of the habit whereby a woman is simply ‘Mrs. —’ and has no name of her own. However, the cause of death is given as ‘childbed’ which indicates she died of puerperal fever or infection following the birth of a child. The researcher may still be able to find out her name. A check of the baptismal records for this period locate the christening of her child and indicate that her name was Catherine Hume, wife of William Cruckshanks.
Burial records of children which say simply ‘a child of John Smith,’ or perhaps ‘—,’ with John Smith in the ‘father’s name’ column should lead us to baptismal records for the previous several years as they may turn up the child’s name.
If you already have a death record from some other source, is looking at the burial record necessary? The answer to this has to be ‘yes and no.’
For the truly serious researcher, every document, every record holds the possibility of new information, and so should be examined. Even incorrect data, or blank spaces, can tell us something.
But most burial records are very basic, and hence uninformative. The exceptions will become known to you as you become familiar with the records of the churches your family attended. You will see that the forms used at certain times require more information, or that a particular minister is more assiduous in recording data. As always, if you are unsure, you should have a look. Some clergy called their registers “Funerals” rather than “Burials.”
It is worth saying here that if the records you are looking at are Lutheran, then attention should be paid to the burial records. If they are in German and your German is slight, make a copy for later translation. Lutheran burial records tend to include the extra information which we value.
The burial records for Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario during the 1880s stated the person’s name, date and place of death, date and place of burial, cause of death and text used in the funeral sermon (Leichentext). This last may seem marginal information, but it may have been a bible verse much loved by the dead person, and is, at any rate, something for the written family history
St. Paul’s in 1887
This example from St. Paul’s in 1887 shows that all of the above information is given. Heinrich Conrad Fabel died of diphtheria. The text, not on a form, is still written in the German Gothic.
Elisabeth Katharina Schmidt
In another example, the record for Elisabeth Katharina Schmidt tells us that her maiden name was Wohl, she was the widow of Adam Schmidt, born 25 December 1821 at Frühlingen, Hirschfeld, Kurhessen, died 23 July 1895, buried 26 July 1895 at Mount Hope Cemetery, survived by 2 daughters. The birthplace information is especially valuable. By 1896, the records are given on a form and although still in German are written using the English form of handwriting.
One amazing burial record (from a church record now no longer publicly available) stated all of the following: the woman’s name, age, place of birth in Germany, parents’ names, when she immigrated to Canada including the name of the ship, husband’s name and marriage date, number of children including how many were still alive, date and place of death, place of burial andLeichentext. A burial record which had even a handful of these things would be a find for a researcher.
Examples from Burial Records
Early Roman Catholic
In the printed registers for Notre-Dame-de-Québec, we find a burial for François Gontier, aged 26 years, who died 21 January 1729 and was buried the following day. The only others listed in the record are three priests.
Most of those buried at Notre-Dame-de-Québec in 1729 are children, often very young. Their fathers’ names are given also. Married women’s husbands’ names are given also.
Later Roman Catholic
In the printed registers for Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures for 1751, we find the burial of Pierre Trudelle, aged 56 years. He died on 27 February 1751 and was buried the following day. There are two witnesses, Pierre Tessier and Daniel Hély, and name of the officiating priest, Fr Dunière.
Most of the deaths in this register of are children, as before, and the names of both their parents are given this time. The husband’s name is given for married women.
Naturally any researcher would make a note of the witnesses at the burial, in case they should be useful. If you are looking through records such as these, it would be good to examine the entries surrounding the one which interests you. Are there similarities or differences which should be noted?
In this case, yes. Almost all the burials in 1750 and 1751 have Pierre Tessier as a witness and many also have Daniel Hély. This makes it less likely that they were acting as personal friends of Pierre Trudelle when they were listed in his burial record, but more likely they hold some office in the church or community.
More established episcopal religions were more likely to have kept burial records in the old country, and carried their habits to the new world. Evangelical religions, whose record keeping was not as thoroughly established, are less likely.
So, we find plenty of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran burial records, even from pioneer days. Others were more likely to begin keeping burial records when their own record keeping became more organized, either by their denomination or through the commencement of civil registration, which made everyone more aware of the necessity of these kinds of records. Many of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Ontario, for example, have burial records starting in the 1860s or shortly after.
Burial records can be used as an adjunct to cemetery records. In some cases the church will have had its own burying ground or churchyard; in others, the burials will have taken place in a community cemetery. Whichever, burial records can be used to solve mysteries caused by broken gravestones or by cemetery records which are incomplete. The activities of local genealogy societies are discovering many pioneer family farm burial sites which, due to distance or other factors at the time of deaths, may never have received a clergy visit or subsequent recording.
Of course community cemeteries and their records are not within the purview of a church. They grew from the need for purposely dedicated grounds to serve the increasing population. Thus began the gradual non-religious aspect of cemetery administration, the development of plot registers, cemetery site plan and so on.
The published records of the Boston Church in Halton County, Ontario, include a map of the churchyard as it was in 1911, with lot owners’ names:
- ↑ Elsa Flack, “Newfoundland and Labrador,” in Terrence M. Punch, Genealogist’s Handbook for Atlantic Canada research (2nd edition, 1997), p. 45.
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