Where to find Belgian Mourning Letters and Memorial Cards

You may have found mourning letters and memorial cards for Belgian relatives among the papers of your immigrant ancestors. But most often you will have to hunt for them in the archives of genealogical and historical societies and in the files of private collectors. Luckily many societies, archives and collectors have placed their indices online and will provide genealogists with a scanned image upon request.

The following is a selected list of websites for societies, archives, and private individuals who collect mourning letters and death memorial cards. Keep in mind that in most cases, location of the archive or collector does not reflect the scope of the collection.

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De Mortuis Nili Nisi Bene

Of the dead (say) nothing but good

The custom of distributing death memorial cards during Roman-Catholic funeral services dates back to the seventeenth century. At first they were handwritten, but during the early nineteenth century printed cards became the norm. Initially reserved for bishops, priests, and other dignitaries, the prayer card tradition spread to the upper and middle classes, and the development of inexpensive printing techniques made them more affordable to all members of society by the early twentieth century. 1

Though not as rich as mourning letters, memorial cards contain brief genealogical information with many clues for the savvy genealogist. At the very least they provide the place and date of birth and death for the deceased. Cards also customarily include the name of spouse(s), both deceased and living. Cards for young children mention the parents.

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World War II War Brides

On the morning of September 2, 1944, the first allied forces arrived in the province of Hainaut in Belgium. Mons and Brussels were liberated the next day. Other major cities followed in quick succession: Antwerp (September 4), Gent (September 5-6), Liège (September 7-8). In the course of ten days most of Belgium was liberated by the British (mostly in Flanders) and the American (in Wallonia) forces.2

Everywhere they went, the troops were welcomed with open arms.  People danced and celebrated in the streets and women threw their arms around their liberators as they passed by. The Yanks and Canucks brought chocolate, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and candy. They were carefree and lighthearted and soon enough captured the hearts of numerous girls. Ellie Shukert and Barbara Scibetta, both daughters of war brides, estimate that approximately one million women married American GIs during and after World War II.3

The inhabitans of Eau Rouge in Belgium greet Allied Troups, 4 September 1944.4
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Zij bevelen zijne ziel in uwe gebeden.

They place his soul in your prayers. Such was the request of my ancestors who announced the death of their dear husband and beloved father. When my second great-grandfather passed away in 1901 his immediate family printed, as was customary, a mourning letter [Doodsbrief – Faire-part de décès – Trauerbrief].

Mourning letter for Franciscus Smets (1829-1901).1
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Anatomy of a Death Record: Examples from both sides of the language border.

Deaths have been recorded by civil registrars in Belgium since about 1796. The task of reporting the death to the authorities usually fell on two family members or neighbors of the deceased. Today the task is most commonly handled by an undertaker who submits the medical certificate, created by the physician, to the town clerk.

Until March 2019, each town created two copies of each death register. Keep in mind that in small towns, births, marriages, and deaths may have been recorded in one single register. The original copy was kept by the town, the duplicate sent to Court of First Appeal. As of 31 March 2019, all civil registration records are recorded electronically only in a national civil registration database (Databank Akten Burgerlijke Stand (DABS) or Banque de données  centrale  d’actes  de  l’état  civil (BAEC).1

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Did my ancestor speak Flemish or Dutch?

The answer to this question is complicated.  Most Flemish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century told their family and friends they spoke Flemish [Vlaams]. It is also what they told census enumerators. However, more recent Flemish-Americans, myself included, probably will tell you that they speak Dutch [Nederlands]. Were your ancestors wrong? Or are we both right? Is there a difference between Flemish [Vlaams] and Dutch [Nederlands]? What word should we use when we talk about our Flemish ancestors? If you are confused, you are not alone.

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In Search of Anton Diedrick, also known as Diedrick Dutchover.

Not long ago, a friend passed me an article published in Texas Highways, a monthly publication of the Texas Department of Transportation, which featured an interview with West Texas columnist and raconteur Lonn Taylor. During the interview, Taylor mentions a little Mexican restaurant in Fort Davis, Texas, called Poco Mexico, which is owned by one of the oldest Hispanic families, the Dutchover family. And here is where it got interesting for me: the Dutchovers’ founder was a Belgian immigrant by the name of Anton Diedrick.1

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Belgian Marriage Supplements

In a previous post we analyzed a typical marriage record from a town in Flanders. Today we will take a look at marriage supplementary records. They are often overlooked, and indeed, they often repeat information you can find elsewhere, but I am here to show you they can still be worth your while.

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Belgian Immigration to America between 1880 and World War I

Between 1880 and 1920 some towns in Belgium experienced a real “America-rush.” Although alternatives to overseas migration were still available and used by many, Belgians were attracted to the New World in increasing numbers.

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Anatomy of a Flemish Marriage Record: An 1832 Example from Kalmthout.

My great great great grandparents, Benedictus Vanhooydonck and Maria Catharina Greefs, were married at Kalmthout on Friday 6 May 1832. He was the son of Adriaan Van Hooydonck and Maria Greefs, and grew up in the Nieuwmoer hamlet of Kalmthout, where his mother managed a small store in the Capelstraat. Maria rented the house, and Benedictus, Maria’s second husband, was a common manual laborer who could not read or write. Benedictus had one older sister and seven older half-siblings.1

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