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].
Belgians still apprise family, friends, and neighbors of the death of a loved one with a printed letter. The tradition dates back to the late eighteenth century even though it was then limited to those who could afford the expense: the nobility, upper classes and clergy. By the end of the nineteenth and especially during the twentieth century however it became common practice. In a few cases the mourning letter is reprinted in the local newspaper, and nowadays a limited version of the letter (minus the names of family) is frequently published online on the funeral director’s website as shown in this example.
Mourning letters most often contain the date and place of birth and death of the deceased, and details about funeral and burial arrangements. Franciscus Smets was born in ‘s Gravenwezel on 24 October 1829 and died in Borgerhout on 7 December 1901 at 6 o’clock in the morning. The last rites were administered to him. His’ funeral was scheduled for Monday 9 December 1901 at 9 am in the parish church of O. L. Vrouw ter Sneeuw in Borgerhout. Condolences [rouwbeklag] could be made at the home of the deceased [sterfhuize] at 57 Carnotplaats until 8:30 am. Burial was planned at O.L.V. Kerkhof of Borgerhout.
A list of family members either precedes or follows the announcement. Certain rules are adhered to in their enumeration. A typical order for an older married individual is as follows:
- Surviving spouse
- Children and grandchildren [sometimes they are listed separately], traditionally listed from oldest to youngest
- Siblings of the deceased
- Siblings of the deceased’s partner
Aunts, uncles, and cousins are rarely spelled out but referred to by the name of the family. Four families listed at the end usually refer to the deceased’s father’s family, the partner’s paternal family, deceased’s maternal family, and the partner’s maternal family (there will be six family names if the deceased was married twice).
In the case of a child, his or her parents will be named first, followed by siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
In my ancestor’s example we can deduce that Franciscus was married to Joanna Van Wesembeeck. The following seven families probably refer to his children, but could also include siblings. Unless it is spelled out, be careful when making assumptions about relationships. Two people who are listed together are not necessarily married. Some family members may have been omitted. Children may be the result of a previous relationship. Always corroborate information with other documents. Names can be misspelled, misprinted, or simply wrong. In other words, use mourning letters cautiously in your research.
Mouring letters can also provide a glimpse into the lives our ancestors. They can mention the departed’s occupation, military service, and membership in various organizations. My second great-grandfather served on the board of the herbal society Linnæus, which speaks to his interest in gardening. As a devout Catholic he was a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, a typical fraternal organization of Belgium’s compartmentalized society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where Catholics, Socialists, and Liberals lived, worked, and socialized within their own respective pillar or realm. Members of the society, inspired by the teachings of St. Francis, organized masses, pilgrimages, retreats, and other events to support faith and community.5
Over the years mourning letters have become less formal. Gone are their thick black borders and religious overtones. The mourning letter for my paternal grandmother is spread out over two pages and includes her favorite poem by Alice Nahon. The second page (not reproduced here) provides the names of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren with their respective spouses. The children are listed from eldest to youngest. The grandchildren are grouped by family so that it is possible to reconstruct each family.
Besides family archives, mourning letters are collected by historical and genealogical societies, and private collectors. Sometimes they are offered for sale on an auction site such as Delcampe (hint: search in their “old paper” section). The Genealogical Society of Flemish Americans has an extensive collection of letters for Flemish-Americans and members of their family in Belgium. In the same places you will also find millions of death memorial cards but those we will leave for a future discussion.
Cite this post
Kristine Smets. “Zij bevelen zijne ziel in uwe gebeden” The Belgian American, posted 21 October 2019 (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed (date)).
- Franciscus Smets doodsbrief, 1901; privately held by A. Smets, Kalmthout, Belgium; used with permission.
- Louis Robert de Roover lettre de décès, 1933; privately held by A. Smets, Kalmthout, Belgium.
- Maria Elisabeth Winckelmans, doodsbrief 1962); privately held by A. Smets; Kalmthout, Belgium; used with permission.
- Joannes Henricus Anna Marie Van den Maagdenberg, 1953; privately held by A. Smets, Kalmthout, Belgium.
- “Derde orde,” Wikipedia: De Vrije Encyclopedia (https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derde_orde : viewed 18 October 2019), last rev. 20 November 2018.
- Maria Willemse doodsbrief, 2001; privately held by Kristine Smets, Baltimore, Maryland; used with permission.