Last month, an acquaintance of ours suddenly died, at home in his bed. His wife rang and asked our help with the authorities. The administrative and customary procedures when someone dies in France are:
- The doctor must see the body and then issue a medical death certificate, without which the body may not be moved;
- The medical certificate and records of the deceased's identification must be presented to the town hall within three days for the death to be registered and copies of the official registration to be issued, without which the body may not be buried and all the many bureaucratic procedures may not be instigated.
On the morning of the death, our friend rang the doctor. Under normal circumstances, he would have been there within the hour, but he was out on an emergency call. His secretary promised to give him the message. At midday, he still had not arrived. We gave our friend the number of the doctor's mobile phone and urged her to ring him, but she was reluctant to bother him on an emergency. Neighbours were clucking, scandalized that the man had been dead twelve hours and the doctor still not come.
At seven in the evening, the undertaker, who had been notified of the death, rang us and said he was worried about our friend, who should have called him by then. We rang her but got no answer, so we went round to our friend's home. She was still waiting for the doctor and still reluctant to ring him. We rang him. He was horrified, said he had received no message. Unfortunately, his office was full of sick people and he could not come, he told us. It might have to wait until the next day. "No," we said. He asked if we could bring the man's documents to the doctor's office and he would write out the medical certificate. That is what we did. He never saw the body.
The clerk at the town hall wrote out the death registration the next day, struggling with the English of the man's identity papers. There were a few mistakes, but no one seemed to mind. In terms of practicality, all went well and the man was buried according to his wishes. In terms of record-keeping and documentation, since the doctor never saw the body, it could have been anyone and since the death registration is a bit garbled, future researchers may have a tricky time of it.
Normally, with French civil registrations, someone along the line has to actually witness proof of the event. A baby needs to be seen by someone in authority, and used to have to be taken by the father to the registrar and its sex (the baby's, not the registrar's) revealed. In small towns in the past, the registrar was summoned to the home to see the corpse before he would write a death registration. Couples had to be married by the registrar BEFORE any religious ceremony could take place and this is still the case. Yet, mistakes happen, crises occur, corner are cut.
For the most part, French parish and civil registrations can be trusted as original evidence in genealogical research. To be honest, there is no choice as there is not much else and every other bit of evidence will refer to these registrations. Here are a few guidelines as to when that trust might be placed well or no:
- Small is better. In a small parish, a priest probably will have known his parishioners and they would have trouble altering what he considered to be the truth. When civil registrations were instituted, it was often the case in small towns that a single register was used for births marriages and deaths, and the registrar would simply refer back to an earlier page to prove the birth of someone marrying. In cities, anonymity leads to mistakes and uncertainty.
- For deaths, know your French history at the local level. During times of war and plague, when there are many deaths, registrations become scribbled and truncated, as the registrar, who may be a sudden and untrained replacement himself, struggles to cope. A death registration written in a large city during the 1832 cholera epidemic, or one written in a town north of Paris during the 1814 battle, for example, should probably have its details verified, if possible.
- Doubt the powerful. The powerful and very wealthy could pretty much do as they liked in the past as much as they can today. Many times, we have seen parish or civil registrations that have falsified or, more often, simply omitted information. The large flourish of handwriting is cause for suspicion. We have seen a marriage registration with long lines about a witness's titles and medals, so that it was almost possible not to notice that the groom's parents and age and place of birth were omitted. We have seen birth registrations where the mother's surname was obviously false (no vowels) and the child was not presented, but a prominent doctor was the one who gave the details. We have seen where a baron was able to have his name removed from the birth registrations of his four hated children (completely blotted out with a fortune's worth of ink).
Of course, nothing is infallible, much as we long in this life for the sense of security that might come if only we could trust something absolutely. With rationality and keen analysis, however, we can piece together a likely version of the past.
©2015 Anne Morddel