Thursday, July 13, 2017

Carved in stone? Cemeteries and headstones as a Genealogical resource.

When you start playing rock-paper-scissors, you may intuitively consider the paper as the weakest element and the rock as the strongest. But the beauty of the game is showing that all three elements are just as resistant. It just depends on how we use them.
Unless you are very very lucky, you've been there, you've seen the paper trail vanish in front of your eyes: lost baptismal books, torn marriage records, missing pages of a notary's archives, whole churches burned to the ground (yeah, thank you, Carlist Wars) or plain and simple bureaucratic stupidity.
But of course, silly me! It is just paper! So you consider using a tougher material. After all, that is the whole purpose of a headstone: eternity.
Some headstones display a lot of information, besides the usual dates of birth and death, and the FAN (Friends And Neighbors) strategy can uncover even more data. Moreover, if you are well versed in the subject of funerary art, you could even come up with an accurate profile of the family's socioeconomic status. So, again, the strength of this resource depends on how we use it, but also, the cultural context of our ancestors, and our own.
I've had avoided cemeteries as much as possible. In my culture (catholic-based but no more, extremely urban and obsessed with youth), you can easily ignore they even exist. But then I visited France and found myself walking around the well kept graves by the church of a village in Alsace. They didn't have tons of information but many had those telling details of lives well lived and suddenly, I didn't find it so gloomy. Then, it became easier, and, given the chance, I would visit the cemetery whenever I visit a village.
But when it comes to bigger towns, it is a whole other story. If they are not glamorous historical places where you can find A-list celebrities like Oscar Wilde in Pére Lachaise, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir together in Montparnasse or Evita Peron in Recoleta, they can be quite sad.
Left: Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise, Paris. Center: Jean Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir in Montparnasse, Paris.
Right: Eva Duarte de Perón in Recoleta, Buenos Aires.

But again, what are the chances of finding your great grand uncle buried next to Jim Morrison? (Hopefully, very low, the place is a mess).

Their big advantage is that they usually have an administrator, databases, a direct phone number and an e-mail address (seems obvious? Well, some of them don't). So when I started to work in Genealogy and ran out of resources to find information about that narrow time-frame between my elder's memories and public available data, I had to chose rock. Luckily, at least two of the main branches of my tree had established in the same town back in the Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina (and their cemetery has an institutional e-mail address!).
I wrote my first email asking about my Sosas 8 and 9 with estimated dates and got an immediate reply from the administrator. 8 was there, and I got an exact date of death, but 9 wasn't (she was quite a character, actually). I've continued to email for information about other ancestors so I could ask the civil registry for death certificates, which were free of charge if you can provide the exact date (if you can't, you can pay, they will take your money and still not search for the records). I was filling the information gap faster than ever (except for my dear Margherite, who's date of death was missing).
Later the same year, I had the opportunity to go home and took my parents to a Genealogy road trip to our ancestor's town. Long story short: the copy machine of the civil registry was broken (so, logically, no searches), there was nobody in charge of the records in the church and the café across the main square was closed for mourning. Everything seemed to point out in the same direction. So we finally visited the cemetery. My contact was on vacation but I got a glimpse of how they had their files organized: a big poster with the coordinates of the parcels and an excel sheet that can only be opened in a very old PC that runs on Windows 3.11. Of course they have the original books but when we don't know the dates, it will take them too long to find what we need.
Big deal! All the information is carved in stone, right? Well, maybe initially it is, but sometimes headstones or metal plaques are removed, changed and summarized, losing all those telling details a database can never reflect.

To be continued... in France and Italy...

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