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.
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.
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].
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
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.
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
The first time you encounter a Belgian civil marriage record, your eyes may glaze over, because they tend to be long and contain a lot of so-called ‘legalese.’ But they are worth your close attention, because they are a true gold mine of information.
Searching the Belgian State Archives (Rijksarchief in België, Archives de l’État en Belgique, Belgisches Staatsarchiv) for vital records can be confusing, especially when you are not familiar with the language. First, there are four possible starting places, depending on your language of preference. But with almost all of them, as you dig deeper, the language in the background switches to either Dutch or French. Second, there is no comprehensive index (although you can always try your luck at https://search.arch.be/en/zoeken-naar-personen), so for now browsing the images town by town is the only way to do exhaustive research, which means you must know the town and approximate date for the vital event. Last, and this very unfortunate, there is no download option, so the best you can do it take screenshots in order to have your own digital copy of the record.
Don’t let this deter you however! There two very good reasons for exploring birth, marriage, and death records at the Belgian State Archives as well as at FamilySearch.
In a previous post I mentioned that Belgian vital records less than 100 years old are not open to the public. This is about to change, and genealogists with recent Belgian ancestry should be excited. The new law will take effect on 31 March 2019.1
Death records will become public after 50 years. I.e. on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the death record for anyone who died before 1 April 1969.
Marriage records will become public after 75 years. I.e., on 1 April 2019 you will be able to request a transcript of the marriage record for anyone who married before 1 April 1944.
Did you know that, just like the Germans, Italians, and other ethnic groups in America, the Belgians created and maintained their own ethnic press? The two best known Belgian-American newspapers are the Gazette van Moline, which appeared from 1907 until 1940 in Moline, Illinois, and the Gazette van Detroit (Detroit, Michigan), which was first published in 1914, published its first online issue in 2006, went completely digital in 2015, and, sadly, was discontinued in December 2018. In addition, there were several other more short-lived publications. Most were written in Dutch, yet at least two were issued by Walloons, and therefore were composed in French.