Marked By the Scribe
The Census - Les Recensements

Seeking a Cause of Death

Funeral announcement


There are those family historians whose passion is to check all possible birth records to find all possible relatives. Their dream is to have the biggest family tree in the world, with many thousands of names in their files. Then, there is another type of family historian whose focus is on death records, wanting to know not only when and where each person in their tree died, but how the death occurred, where the dead are buried and if obituaries (notice nécrologiques in French) were written, to have them all. It is our experience that these two types of family history focus are rarely found in the same person, and this post is addressed to the latter.

We receive a fair number of requests to find the cause of death for a person in the French branch of someone's family tree. Not an easy or often successful task. As we have written earlier, French death registrations do not give the cause of death. Why is not clear. Perhaps to the ever practical French, the cause is irrelevant; dead is dead. (The French do not use an equivalent for the currently fashionable term "passing", which we abhor, for it gives the impression that the deceased is somehow speeding past on the motorway. There is room for the development of the metaphor here; country music lyricists take note.)

Where to look, then for a cause of death? Here are some possibilities:

  • Hospital records, if the person died in hospital, which occurred more from the beginning of the twentieth century. Records of Paris hospitals are held at the Archives de l'Assistance publique - Hôpitaux de Paris, those of many other regions of France are in various archives hospitalières
  • Notarial records may, rarely, state the cause of a person's death. A will or a guardianship agreement could have such a mention, if you are lucky. 
  • Obituaries are a modern practice in France, and only the most recent will commonly name the cause of death. Most earlier obituaries laud the deceased but are mum about the cause of the demise. Finding obituaries can be difficult, as not many newspapers are available online. One of the best sources for those that are is Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale
  • Those who died in battle or of their wounds may be found in the Memoire des Hommes online databsaes which have received so much discussion here.
  • Occasionally, a gravestone may state the cause of death. We have seen a few that do so, especially those erected during the 1832 cholera epidemic.

The chances of finding the cause of death are really, to be honest, quite slim, but it is not always impossible. Do tell us, dear readers, of any other successfully searched sources!

©2011 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy