Iwona's Sources - In Search of Misssing Deaths

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In Search of Misssing Deaths

A place of death can be unpredictable in various respects, as a result of wars, uprisings, resettlement, migrations, and various accidents of fate.

There probably is no researcher who has not wracked his brains looking for someone's death certificate. While it easy to estimate a date of birth or marriage, in the case of deaths, the time frame for searching may cover a decade or more. And if an ancestor did not die in the place where he had been living recently and we have no other traces, research presents problems.

Difficult cases require not only determination in the search, but also a bit of luck. It also happens at times that we are left dependent on the good will of officials or priests; and even if they are inclined to help and agree to pore over hundreds of pages of death registers, the effectiveness of such research is always open to a shadow of doubt. An official or a priest, in contrast to an experienced researcher, can more easily overlook a faded name written in fine print at the bottom of a page, or may not be able to read writing in a foreign language (Russian, or German Gothic).

The question arises, what about indexes of graves? Yes, they do exist, but mainly at large communal cemeteries of towns that serve as capitals of powiaty or provinces. Furthermore, contemporary indexing of graves does not always cover all burials. Many graves damaged by the passing of time, abandoned, and neglected have not been included in such index.

And what if the ancestor you're looking for died anonymously? Do you think that's impossible? Just such cases arose in almost every other parish. I will cite one such entry coming from the registers of the parish of J asienica: On 26 April 1809 a certain man, first name and last name unknown, family and previous means of living unknown, who now walked around here, quite weak and asking for bread, roughly 28 years of age, died in the shed of the Jasienica rectory." In my practice, I have dealt many times with "problematic deaths," and each of these cases demanded a different way of searching, depending on the social status of the deceased, the historical circumstances, and information obtained from living relatives.

I remember the curious case of a certain German architect from Warsaw. Searching for deaths in our nation's capital demands a great deal of time and patience. Despite meticulous searching, I did not come upon his death record in any of more than a dozen parishes. My task was made somewhat easier by knowing more or less the year of death. In the end, I picked up his trail in the National Library, where I pored over various books connected with the history of architecture. In one of the entries was a short description of the activity of that architect, mentioning, among other things, his work at a palace in Pulawy at a time close to his estimated time of death. And in fact, his death record appears in the register of a small parish 150 miles from his place of residence. The cause of death was a fall during work; the talented, young architect fell from scaffolding. Books from the territory of the Russian partition usually did not give details on the cause of death-but they made exceptions for sudden deaths caused by accidents. If the architect had died at home, the cause of his death would have been unknown.

If, on the other hand, one's ancestors were normal peasants, bound to their ancestral land and therefore not likely to travel, and the death record being sought is absent in local records, then it is worthwhile to make the rounds of neighboring manorial farmsteads, factories, mines, or railroad stations.

Also worth checking are księgi meldunkowe, registration books-if such exist for the gmina in question-in which all changes of residence were scrupulously noted down. But first and foremost, I would advise checking the original birth entry; annotations on marriages and deaths were often made by priests and officials.

At times, a death record can be key to successful research. Recently, I was wrestling with a tough case; all the documents pointed to a parish, but in that parish's archival books there was no trace of the family in question. A search of neighboring parishes also brought no results. Finally, I went to the cemetery of that parish and found one grave, only one, with the surname I was seeking, dated 1957. I quickly contacted the local Civil Registrar's office, and there I obtained valuable information: the birthplace of the person buried there. That one death record became the key to final research success.

To finish, let me show you a rare death document, a so-called karta smierci or "death card," I just found in a recent case. It was issued in the village of Chrzastowka, near Jaslo. It is a shame that whole files full of such cards have not been kept; they would be particularly helpful in recreating the circumstances of our ancestors'deaths. The card in question is reproduced here, and an English translation of its contents follows.

Death card issued 20 April 1875

We, sworn members of the gmina, have issued this certificate. Stanislaw Cholewa died on 18 April. No one was with him or saw his death; he drank vodka and went to sleep drunk and did not get up again, and so he died due to vodka. We took proper care of his body and issued this certificate before witnesses.

x Mikołaj Wojcik, doctor
x Paweł Radwanski Wójt
x Kowalczyk Józe
x Franciszek Macek witnesses

x Mikołaj Wojcik
Wojciech Wietecha
Sworn witnesses

Chrzastowka, 20 April 1875 .

Iwona Dakiniewicz, Lodz, Poland <genealogy@pro.onet.pl>
[with translation assistance from William F. Hoffman]

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Last Updated on April 12, 2012