Modern Software Experience

2009-09-06

genealogy definition

Many traditional genealogists define vital events as birth, marriage and death. That is obviously wrong.

vital events

Many traditional genealogists define vital events as birth, marriage and death. That is obviously wrong.
One could argue that the expression should be really birth, marriages (plural) and death, but that detail is not an issue. The issue is this odd definition of vital events. It does not make sense. It is neither logical nor consistent.

more than marriage

If you include marriage, you have to include civil unions and domestic partnerships too. If you include marriage, you have to include divorce as well. And if you include divorce, is there any good reason to not include legal separation?

Adoption is legal death and rebirth at the same time.

adoption

Moreover, if you include marriage, shouldn't you include adoption too? Adoption is arguably more important, more fundamental, more life-changing than marriage, separation and divorce are. Adoption is legal death and rebirth at the same time; a child is legally removed from one family to appear in another one.

BMD

BMD records

A widely used expression for birth, marriage and death records is BMD records. It is the obviously correct expression to use. Why do traditional genealogist use vital events and vital records to mean BMD events and BMD records respectively, when they could use this crystal terminology instead? Why not use BMD records if that is what you mean?

dated

Well, one reason may be that the expression BMD records is dated. It succinctly refers to three major civil records types, but that already became inadequate when governments started to record divorces, and applying it to modern day records is unacceptable, as it acknowledges marriage without acknowledging other forms of legal partnership.

Authors understandably look for an alternative to the dated BMD records and often pick vital records, even when it does not really fit. Even more surprising, many who do so still define vital records as birth, marriage and death records, a definition that makes vital records no more than a synonym for, and just as inadequate as BMD records.

If we insists on grouping legal partnerships and break-ups with birth and death, than we should be using something like BPD (Birth Partnership Death) to describe current records. To not exclude adoption again, we should be using something like BRD (Birth Relationship Death).

The BMD expression is dated. It enumerates the civil record types that several governments kept during certain periods, but we are rarely interested in just that period. We can amend the expression to include other civil record types, but chances are that the updated expression will become dated to. Why bother updating the expression when we can simply refer to all the civil record types that the government keeps as civil records?

limited use

Defining vital records as a synonym for BMD records makes vital records just as inadequate as BMD records already is.

The BMD expression is of limited use, as it is hardly ever an accurate description of the major records being kept. Churches maintained baptism records, marriage announcement and burial records. Churches still record baptisms and their marriage ceremonies. Governments maintain divorce records. Governments maintain adoption records. Modern society recognises various legal partnerships. Governments record burials. All these records are important to genealogy.
Defining vital records as a synonym for BMD records makes vital records just as inadequate as BMD records already is. So, how do you define it? What are vital records?

definitions

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com Wiki

The Ancestry.com Wiki does not have an entry for either vital event or vital record, and no glossary either. All the Red Book articles about civil records for American states use vital records to mean BMD records, instead of simply using that term.

genealogy.com

Ancestry.com provides a definition on genealogy.com: Vital records document the "major" events of an individual's life: birth, marriage, death, and divorce. The page that provides that definition does not explain why they use quotes around the word major. Anyway, according to Ancestry.com, vital records includes divorce records, but does not include separation records.

However, genealogy.com does not even agree with itself. Their genealogy 101 lesson 2 states that Vital records pertain to birth, marriage and death records. Divorce records are sometimes classified as vital records, but more often, as court records.. So their definition says divorce records are vital record, but their introduction says that divorce records are not really vital records.

It is also interesting to note that the genealogy.com definition notes that In general, vital records weren't kept in the United States until the early 1900s. That remark immediately explains why census records are vitally important to American genealogy, yet the definition does not consider census records to be vital records.

All vital records are vital records, regardless of the authority that maintains them.

FamilySearch Wiki

The FamilySearch Wiki does not have an entry for either vital event or vital record, but the glossary does. Their glossary defines vital records as A term that refers to birth, marriage, divorce, and death records created by governments. So, according to FamilySearch it includes both marriage and divorce, but does not include legal separation.

They add the surprising qualifier created by governments, as if vital records from earlier times, when these were created by churches, aren't vital records at all. That is wrong.

All vital records are vital records, regardless of the authority that maintains them. Nowadays, that authority is the government. In the past, that authority was a church.

NARA

The U.S.A. National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) explains vital records in their FAQ:

"Vital records" most commonly refers to records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and divorce decrees, wills and the like.

Although the NARA is a government organisation, their description does not restrict vital records to records created by government. Note that the NARA avoids a definition, and merely states what vital records most commonly refers to. They seem to be aware that traditional genealogists use the term rather loosely, and are not in agreement on a definition. Remarkably, the NARA does include wills in their enumeration of vital records, an inclusion most genealogists would disagree with.

Vital Records Online

Surely a company called Vital Records Online will get it right? Alas, like genealogy.com, they do not even agree with themselves. Their What are Vital records page states Vital records include birth certificates, death certificates and marriage records. They are records which document the birth, marriage or death of a person and can be very beneficial in genealogical research., while their home page invites you to Search for U.S. Vital Records Online. Find Birth Certificates, Death Certificates, Marriage Certificates, Divorce Decrees and resources for Genealogy. Their definition is really a definition of BMD, and does not include divorce records, yet their home page invites you to search for divorce records.

Wikipedia

vital records

The Wikipedia entry on vital records starts with this sentence: Vital records are records of life events kept under governmental authority, including birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates..
It makes the same mistake as FamilySearch by excluding older records maintained by churches. This first sentence omits separation and divorce, and the second sentence only adds that civil unions and domestic partnerships may be included.

traditional confusion

disagreement and contradiction

Traditional genealogists talk about vital events, but do not agree on what they mean by that. Many definition equate vital events with BMD records. Other definitions equate vital events with civil records. Some definitions include divorce, other definitions enumerate what vital events are, and omit divorce from the enumeration. None of these definitions includes legal separation. The NARA enumeration includes wills. Several organisations do not only disagree with each other, but even contradict themselves.

adoption

Most remarkable is that although adoption is more life-changing and has more legal consequences than marriage, all the definitions include marriage records while none of the above definitions includes adoption records. This omission of adoption records makes it clear that those enumeration are not honest enumerations of all records of major life events, but selections guided by personal opinions.
The omission of adoption records isn't the result of the traditional genealogists' idea that genealogy is only about blood relations; marriage isn't a blood relationship either. The omission of adoption records is an insensitive expression of the underlying opinion that adoption does not belong in genealogy.

civil records

In most cases, authors that write about vital records really mean civil records.
Technically, civil records are records kept by a civil authority. Thus, the governments keep civil records, while churches kept (and keep) church records. You can easily refer to both by using the phrase civil and church records. The phrase BMD records is rarely correct, and should generally be replaced by either civil records or civil and church records.
By the way, notes jotted down in a some family-owned book are neither civil nor church records, they are private records.

Confusion between vital records and civil records explains misdefinitions that erroneously state that vital records are records kept by a government. It is the nature of the event and record thereof that is vital, regardless of the authority that keeps the records.

Many authors misdefine vital records as a synonym for BMD records, and then go on to use it as if it is a synonym for civil records.

just an expression

Traditional genealogist do not agree on a definition for vital records. Well-known organisations disagree with each other and contradict themselves. It seems to be just an expression they bandy about in a remarkably sloppy way. Many authors misdefine vital records as a synonym for BMD records, and then go on to use it as if it is a synonym for civil records. They exclude adoption, but include marriage, and do not agree on whether divorce records are included. Some genealogist may be willing to start a religious war over whether other legal partnerships than marriage are included.

opinion

The failure of traditional genealogist to agree on a definition of vital records is easily explained; traditional genealogy provides no foundation for agreement. There is only a vague notion of vital records as records of major events, but what is a major event and what isn't?

The bottom line is that existing traditional definitions of vital records that enumerate the vital record types are based on no more than personal preference and opinions. None of these opinions is right or wrong merely because it agrees with or differs from another opinion.
The fact remains that many enumerations are incomplete in rather illogical and inconsistent ways, and that such definitions raise more questions than they answer. In most cases, it is best to use civil records and church records instead.

links