Lidija Sambunjak, professional genealogist

Death records are often not easy to read, but it’s not about handwriting

As I had to do some health exams, I was sitting in a waiting room for my doctor to receive me. And as I was waiting, a thought came to me about my ancestors. I thought how blessed I am to live in the 21st century where medicine and technology are so advanced and widespread so that a good medical assistance is available in virtually every city.

Most of those that went before us were not that lucky. At the beginning of the 20th century when priests started to record reasons for death in vital books, we can find just a few variants, which repeat with different people over and over again, as the cause of a person’s passing.

That wasn’t because there would have been lesser number of diseases than today. It was because doctors were often not available prior to the death of a person to determine what had been an illness and perhaps help. And priests would not know much, so they would write in the death records whatever they would think it describes the cause. So they would write “cramps”, “natural causes”, “lung inflammation” or simply “old age”.

Being grateful

While reading death books one can notice that the closer a death record is to the present, the more precisely causes of death were stated. Most common were diphtheria, tuberculosis, small pox, whooping cough and pneumonia. But there can also be found diseases like diarrhea, cholera, scarlet fever, bronchitis and typhoid fever.

For a devoted genealogist, the one who care about his or her deceased, it is often not easy to read those records. At least for me it isn’t, particularly when I need to read it all day long. It can become emotionally draining. Seeing families loosing all of their children within a few weeks or children loosing their parents one after another is something that can really shake me. That is why I think we really need to be grateful for our ancestors who’s challenges were much greater than we can imagine.