Tuesday, January 19, 2021 -
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Another death too close to home, and more

I’m not one to talk about my personal life in these columns, but my absence last month was due to helping with the aftermath of losing a second nephew.

Readers may recall my first nephew, Josh Smelser, was murdered several months ago. My other nephew, Alexander Fearer, died in an accident, in Chicago, right before Thanksgiving. Both my brother and sister (and their spouses) have lost their son, one in his 20s and the other in his 30s. Of course, no parent should face this devastation and it’s hard to watch them endure the holidays without them.

I bring this up not only to contextualize spending so much time on death records, but also to speak to the emotional element of doing genealogy.

Obviously, we’ve lost virtually all our ancestors to death, and looking at records and circumstances from years or decades (sometimes centuries) ago, we are less emotionally attached, especially if the circumstances were natural causes. One exception of course is when we lost people to tragedy or suffering, and we tend to feel more emotionally invested in that person.

Equally obviously, the more recent the death was, or the closer we were to the person, the more painful it is to delve into these issues. This is something to contemplate especially during a pandemic in which a half a million Americans may perish.

In my first column on this subject (Sept. 25, 2020), I talked about obituaries, newspaper/media reports, and Find A Grave, police, coroner and court records. In the second column (Oct. 30, 2020), I addressed death certificates, gravestones, Jewish Online World Burial Registry, cemeteries, and the Social Security Death Index.

Another key record set are wills or probate records. Although neither of my nephews had a will — and many people don’t — it can be a very informative source of genealogical detail.

Wills usually list beneficiaries, along with what assets (money and property) were left behind, giving a more detailed look at the person’s life. If there was no will (the person died intestate), that can still create a set of probate record.

Since these are court documents, they are generally public records and accessible — if you know where to look.

Probate files could be just a few pages in length, or hundreds of pages, depending on a number of circumstances. Probate cases can also take as little as a month, or be drawn out many years, if the will is contested.

Actually, if family members contested the will, that’s a good thing for us genealogists — it often goes into great detail concerning family and financial dynamics.

I briefly mentioned death registers previously, but a little more detail is in order.

Initially, a number of cities or counties created registers to track deaths, with a few or many details. This could have been instead of or in addition to a death certificate. Often, cities, counties and states created indexes to these registers (and other death records), which can be found on genealogical databases (Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage and others).

While these are very useful, always use these indexes to find the original records — this is actually true of all indexes (always seek out the original record.) Indexes are always products of transcription, and errors can (and do) creep into transcribed documents — especially if they’ve been transcribed several times, which happens.

Looking at Jewish sources, one of the first tasks our ancestors did when they immigrated was to set up burial societies in the country they arrived in. Those societies were often named for the shtetl or region they came from, which can be a clue about their origins.

My great-grandfather, Jacob Ragovin, is buried in the Wolozin Burial Society section in a NYC cemetery (Mt. Zion). Wolozin is likely Volozhin, Belarus, a shtetl of famous rabbis and yeshivas. I cannot assume he automatically came from there, but I would want to take a look at the records of that town by searching on the Belarus Special Interest Group on JewishGen and see whether I can match what I know about Jacob with any Jacob Ragovins I might find there. However, just because Jacob is buried in that section doesn’t automatically mean he came from that place. There could have been other reasons he’s buried there, so I have to be careful about presumptions — but it’s a place to start.

I want to also mention yahrzeit plaques, found in most established synagogues to commemorate the Hebrew death date of that person.

The plaques usually only list a name and perhaps a death date, but it might be helpful to locate a person or place of death either when records are unavailable or to verify other information. Some plaques even have the father’s name.

JewishGen hosts a Memorial Plaque Database that you can search.

Yizkor books were created mostly by Holocaust survivors in the 1950s and 1960s to remember their own (often destroyed) shtetl and the people who lived there (often Shoah victims.) 

These large books were generally written in Yiddish (often with photos of shtetl residents), but a number have been transcribed. You can also find them at JewishGen.

Speaking of Holocaust records, most survived. More on those in a future column.

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