Modern Software Experience

2011-03-13

Vital Records

birth and death

There are only two vital events: birth and death. Many traditional genealogist confuse vital records with civil records and with BMD records. There is a large legacy of traditional genealogy publications that use these terms sloppily, as if they are interchangeable, but they are not. They do mean different things.

Scientific genealogy is crystal clear about what is and isn't a vital event. Birth and death are the only two vital events. Marriage isn't a vital event. Marriage is a social and legal event.

Vital records apply to official genealogy, legal records apply to legal genealogy.

evidence

The distinction between vital and legal events is not an arbitrary distinction, but a significant one. Vital records apply to official genealogy, legal records apply to legal genealogy.

Official birth and death records are evidence for official genealogies. Marriage and divorce records are evidence for legal genealogies.

birth records

A birth records is evidence for official genealogy, but it is good to keep in mind that birth records were not created to serve genealogists. Churches keep baptisation records for superstitious and financial reasons. Governments maintain birth records for a variety of official and legal reasons.
Birth and baptisation records do quite naturally contain genealogical information, because they, directly and indirectly, record a genealogical event.

official information

A typical birth document lists the newborn, their parents, some witnesses and the town clerk. For the newborn, it will generally list their name, gender, date of birth and place of birth. For the parents and witnesses, it will typically list their name, age, occupation and place of residence.

A typical death certificate will list the deceased, witnesses and a town clerk. For the deceased, it will generally list their name, gender, age at death, place of residence, and the names of their parents. It may even mention their address, the name of the doctor, the cause of death, and place of birth. For the witnesses, a death record will typically list their name, age occupation and place of residence.

Both birth and death certificates are likely to mention the family relationship of the witnesses to the primary person if it is known.

Many death certificates mention the parents, just like birth certificates do, but there are important differences.

quality

Many are aware that there is a difference in the quality of the parental information on a birth and a death certificate. The witnesses on a birth certificate are not likely to accidentally misidentify the parents, they are often close to the family and may even have witnessed the birth themselves. The witnesses on a death certificate often only know who the parents of the deceased are because they were told once. They are less likely to be close family, they are less likely to care much and more likely to know it wrong, misremember it, confuse it with some other family, or spell it wrong.

nature

What traditional genealogists overlook is that there is another, more fundamental difference between the parental information on a birth and a death certificate. It is true that the information on death certificate often is of lesser quality, but the much more important difference is that the information is of a different nature.

A birth certificate purports to identify the biological parents, but in actual fact establishes who the official parents are. A death certificate is even farther away from the biological genealogy, a death certificate merely identifies the legal parents, who may or may not be the official ones.

The witnesses on a death certificate may not know that the deceased was adopted. If they know, they may not tell the clerk, and if they do tell the clerk, the clerk will point out that they want the names of the legal parents, not the official ones. They are likely to express that thought using the confused notions of traditional genealogy, and something like we want the official parents, not the biological ones, but that does not matter to us. What matters is that they end up writing down the names of the legal parents instead of the official ones.

Thus, although death is a vital events, and vital records are associated with the official genealogy, the parental information on a death certificate does not apply to the official genealogy, but to the legal genealogy.

Marriage isn't a vital event, but a marriage record may contain vital information anyway.

marriage records

Like the vital records, marriage records are not made for genealogists, but for official and legal reasons.
Marriage isn't a vital event, but a marriage record may contain vital information anyway.

Marriage information is not essential to creating a family tree.  As long as birth record identify the parents, a genealogy can be constructed.

The child of an unmarried mother was and often is registered as being of an unknown father. When they find themselves pregnant, couples did and do marry in haste, so that their child will be born to a married couple, but they do not always do so.

Sometimes people marry after having had one or more children, and the father then officially recognises the already born children as his own. Perhaps there is more reason to doubt that the husband truly is the father of the children then there is with a birth registration that includes a father. Without further evidence, it is not possible to tell whether the man owned up to his responsibility or merely did the social and legally convenient thing for the sake of society.

Fact is, that such a marriage record establishes the official parents of the children. That is official vital information on a marriage record. Thus, although marriage isn't a vital event, that part of a marriage record can and must serve as vital evidence.

more records

It is possible for a father to acknowledge a child during marriage, it is also possible to acknowledge a child through other procedures. Sometimes the official fatherhood is established by the court. All such documents can be used to establish who the official father is. It remains important to remember that all such documents merely establish who the official father is, not who the biological father is. Establishing biological relationships requires biological proof.

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