Dealing With Death

Last year, I worked for a couple of months for a company located in a renovated factory on the Cataraqui River. The clients for this company were funeral homes. What was it like working in that line of business? It’s hard to find the right adjective to describe that business domain. Weird, perhaps. No other type of business deals with such an emotionally charged issue as death.

One of my tasks was scraping the existing client web sites to extract obituary data. Technically, the PHP programming was fairly straight-forward. However, the task also required reading through the extracted data to make sure it was read correctly. While I had no problem with most of the obits, which described rich, full lives of people who died of old age, other obits were more difficult to read. Such as obits for young children, including a brave 12 year old girl who lost her battle with cancer. One time, I read a death record that listed the place of death as “airplane” and the address of death as the World Trade Center. There’s a certain quality needed for people working in the funeral industry, a quality I lack. Even now, 14 months after I quit that job, I still have little desire to read obituaries.

Then again, I must still read death records, since one of my interests is genealogy. Finding the death or burial records for someone is just as important as finding their birth, baptism, or marriage records. But looking at the death records overall, the life expectancy statistics in past centuries can be quite shocking. Consider the following graph:

There are about 4500 individuals in my Gramps database. Of these, I know the age of death for 1149 of them. Most of these people lived in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The largest single lifespan age group is children younger than 5 years old. Prior to the 20th Century, high infant mortality substantially brought down the overall average life expectancy. That is, if you survived childhood, you stood a good chance of  living into your 70’s or 80’s.

Take one family of distant cousins I researched yesterday using WieWasWie: Jacob van de Klomp and Hendrica van der Wepel (my 1st cousin, 3 times removed) were married in 1882 in Zeist, and had a total of 12 children, born between 1882 and 1898. Of the 12, four made it past their first year of life: Reijer born in 1882, Gosina born in 1889, Hendrica born in 1896, and Willem born in 1898. If they had lived just 50 years later, the vast majority of them would have survived infancy.

Prior to the 20th Century, certain things we take for granted today just didn’t exist. Things like sanitation, immunization, and proper health care. Epidemics, such as cholera, spread rapidly throughout Europe. I saw this clearly in the church records of Gielow, a small town in the south-east corner of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. While reading the microfilmed church records, I came across the burial record of  Wilhelm Ludwigs in October 1850, who died at age 6 of cholera. Several pages later in the church book, I found the burial record of Magdalene Millhahn who also died in October 1850, three days old. Scanning through the pages, I found a total of 50 people who died in October and November of 1850 in that one small town, almost all of cholera.

I find genealogy fascinating since it brings history to a personal level. Looking at the death and burial records can be difficult emotionally, but really shows how difficult life was in past centuries, and how lucky we are today.


Genealogy – Fifteen Years Later

Readers of this blog know that I have a variety of interests. One interest that hasn’t come up yet in this blog is genealogy, the systematic study of our ancestors. I started tracing my lineage back in 1992. I pored over microfilms at the local LDS Family History Center. After a few years, amassed four binders full of data. But my paced slowed down, and other interests started to demand my attention. In 1997, a trip to Germany resulted in some good information about my Boldt line. But after that, I did little more, leaving lots of unfollowed leads and unanswered questions.

A few months ago, Sylvana by chance met someone who claimed to be a direct descendant of millionaire George Boldt, the guy who built Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands. I contacted him and asked him for details. (Later, I realized his claim was dubious since George’s only son had only daughters.) This prompted me to return to my research and continue where I left off. I haven’t gotten back to the LDS yet, though. I’m still going through my old data, looking up new data on the internet, and updating my files. This process has given me a new appreciation for the importance of documenting sources. Going through the data on my computer, I often question where a piece of information came from. So that’s one of my first priorities, one that will take some time to complete.

For the most part, source information is recorded in my written notes. But in one case, I have a document full of good information about my Laseur ancesters, but unfortunately, I have no idea where it came from. I sent an e-mail to one possible person. However, his e-mail address is 13 years old, and predictably, the e-mail bounced. So if anyone knows any information about the descendants of Jan Laseur, born about 1610 in the Amersfoort area, please let me know so I can properly attribute the source of that data.

So what has changed in the past 15 years? First, the technology has progressed. Back then, I was using a DOS-based shareware program called GIM. Today, I use an open-source program, Gramps. This program strongly reflects the design of GEDCOM version 5.5, the most current GEDCOM standard. Compared to the older versions, 5.5 has much better support for sources, and a wider choice of events. It is now much easier to paint a more comprehensive picture of a person’s life. However, the GEDCOM 5.5 standard was released in 1995-1996. While there have been some proposals to move beyond 5.5, it still remains the current standard.

Second, use of the internet has, of course, increased. There are a number of commercial web sites that offer information for a price. For me, though, I can’t quite justify the cost. Fortunately, there are still a lot of free sites where you can find information. This is especially true for Netherlands research. By searching the web, I was able to add significantly to the Dutch side of my pedigree. One good example of this is the site Jan Wies over de familie Mol(l). This contains everything published in the 1930’s and 40’s by the Genealogische Vereeniging “Mol(l)”. If you have Moll’s in your ancestry, this is the first place you should look. You can download complete lists of descendants of three different lines of Moll’s. (I’m a descendant of the Moll’s from Velp.)

But while Dutch genealogists have made good use of the internet, the same can’t be said for the other half of my pedigree, from Mecklenburg-Schwerin. On that side, there’s not much more information than there was 15 years ago.

So what are my next steps? First, there’s the old question: Is my Boldt family related to the millionaire George Boldt? This is a question I wouldn’t bother with if it weren’t for an old family story about a weatlhy American relative visiting the Boldt home in Hindenberg. Second, I have significant unexplored areas in my Mecklenburg pedigree, specifically the ancestors of Carl Ludwigs (died 1909 in Rostock) and Emma Elise Katharine Wulff (died 1916 in Hamburg). Finally, a lot of additional little details need to be filled in, as well as expanding the list of relations.

Cheers! Hans