Formerly published by GlobalGazette.ca
Article Published January 1, 1999
The final Act - SÉPULTURE
By Xenia Stanford
This is the final act in the series of "Les Actes de Baptême, Mariage et Sépulture" which are the equivalent of the vital statistics of births, marriages and deaths. It is also the final church act on behalf of a parishioner. Again we must remember this is a church ceremony recorded in a parish register ("repertoire de paroisse"). Like baptisms ("baptêmes" abbreviated as b.) where you hope to find birth ("naissance" abbreviated as n.) dates, the burial or "sépulture" (abbreviated as s.) entry may be our only clue to an ancestor's death ("décès" abbreviated as d.) date.
DATE OF DEATH VS. DATE OF BURIAL SERVICE
Thus the date of the "sépulture" entry is not necessarily the date of the vital statistic (i.e. death). The person may have died a day or two before the entry in the parish register.
An example can be seen in the following "sépulture" record taken from the parish register of Notre Dame Church in Montreal:
"Le dix huit Octobre mil huit cent cinquante un, le Prêtre soussigné, ai inhumé Emilie, décéde l'avant vielle, agée de vingt deux mois, fille de Joseph Vermet, charretier, et de Marie Rivet, de cette paroisse. Temoins Jean-Baptiste Sancer, soussigné, et Benjamin Desroches, qui n'a soussigné."
(N.B. The entry is typed as found. Grammar and punctuation are as in the original.)
This translates to English as follows:
October 18, 1851, the undersigned priest, has buried Emilie, who died the day before yesterday, aged 22 months, daughter of Joseph Vermet, carter, and of Marie Rivet, of this parish. Witnesses Jean-Baptiste Sancer, who signed, and Benjamin Desroches, who did not sign.
"Sépulture" records are like baptisms where words such as "même jour" (same day), "hier" (yesterday), "avant hier" (day before yesterday), "veille" (yesterday) or "avant veille" (day before yesterday), indicate the date of the vital event while the date given in the entry is that of the church ceremony.
DATE OF BURIAL VS DATE OF BURIAL SERVICE
"Sépulture" translates most closely in English to burial. However, the record was made at the time of the Funeral Mass (Catholic funeral service) for the deceased parishioner and, even though the priest writes that on the given date "the undersigned priest has buried …", the actual interment may not have occurred on that day. For one man, I found an entry in the parish register indicating the priest buried him on March 21 but when I found the cemetery records, the date listed as "reçu" (received) was April 15 of that year. Perhaps the ground was still frozen on March 21 and the body was not actually buried in the cemetery plot until a grave could be dug.
When I attended the church tour at Notre Dame in Quebec City, the guide informed us it was a common occurrence for bodies to be stacked like firewood during a winter epidemic waiting for the ground to thaw for proper burial. In other cases, when there was room, he said the bodies were buried temporarily between the pews. As the parishioners sat down in church their feet may have rested over the ground in which their loved one was decomposing. Luckily the churches were not heated so any major decomposition may have been delayed until spring thaw, at which time the deceased person was removed from the church and buried in the cemetery outside.
However, the church entry will in no way indicate this is what happened. The date of the Funeral Mass or burial service was the one recorded in the register. The person could have died a day or two before and may not actually have been moved to the cemetery for days, weeks or even months depending upon the ground conditions at the time.
In one year, after the Catholic Church allowed cremations, I found a relative had been buried six months after the date of the service. An elderly aunt informed me that this person had been cremated and her ashes remained on the mantel until the family "got around" to the burial.
DIFFICULTIES IN CONFIRMING DATE OF ACTUAL BURIAL
The best way to confirm the date of burial, if different from the date of the service, is to check the cemetery records. However, this may be difficult in some areas where bodies were moved during land reclamation projects.
In some cases cemeteries were consolidated and group plots assigned for graves moved from other sites. However, usually an individual entry can be found in the cemetery's records which lists the death and/or burial date. For cemeteries no longer in use for current burials, finding the cemetery listing can be a challenge.
At Notre Dame Church in Quebec City, I had hoped to find a tombstone, cemetery record or some other indication of the date Victoria Stanford was buried. She was on the 1851 census as a three year old but does not appear on the 1861 census nor is there a marriage record to be found for her. Rather than paying six dollars per year to bring in the microfilm from Salt Lake City for the ten year time span, I had hoped to pinpoint the one register I would need for the "sépulture" service to find her date of death.
The tour guide at the church informed me the bones had been moved from the cemetery outside to the catacombs below the church. The tour would take us to the catacombs where I hoped to find a tombstone or other entry for her. I was very disappointed when the guide pointed to a wall on which was written only "ossements" indicating that behind this wall were the bones of the dead.
Only Catholic priests and nuns as well as important government officials had an individual engraving showing the name, year of birth and death and either a white or black cross. (The colour of the cross indicated whether or not the actual bones had been found during the exhumation of the bodies in the cemetery. The ground had shifted and many coffins were not where they had been placed. Thus it was not always possible to find the remains of the person noted on the tombstone. I do not recall whether it was black or white that indicated the actual remains of the person were behind the wall.)
The tombstones were destroyed and the cemetery records may have been preserved and would likely be found in the archives at Laval University according to the tour guide. Unfortunately to date I have not found anyone who can actually produce the prior cemetery records. Thus it is necessary to comb the parish records or, hopefully, find an index of burials for that time span to locate Victoria's burial record.
AGE OF DECEASED
As you can see from the record above, the approximate age of the person was given. In the case of infants, the age may have been given in days ("jours"), weeks ("semaines") or months ("mois") while ages of older children and adults were simply given in years ("ans"). In the case of infants this may help us find the baptism record as usually the parish was indicated as "de cette paroisse" or, if the family recently moved from elsewhere, the previous parish might have been listed.
However, usually the record did not give the actual birth place of the person whether he or she was an infant or adult at the time of death. In some cases, for recent immigrants, the record may have indicated the country of origin. For example, I found some individuals indicated as "irlandais" (Irish male) or "irlandaise" (Irish female). By this I would assume they were not born in the country of burial.
RELATIONSHIP OF DECEASED
In the entries for minor children, the parents were usually indicated as above. Like marriage records, the approximate date of death of the parents may be found. For example, 19 year old Alexandre Bourbeau's burial entry indicates he was the son of Jean-Baptiste Bourbeau and "de défuncte Ursule Monet". From this we can see that on October 18, 1851 Jean-Baptiste Bourbeau, the father of the deceased, was still alive, but Ursule Monet, the mother, had died sometime in the prior nineteen years.
Records for adults do not usually give the parents of the deceased, but if married, the name of the spouse was usually given. From this clues to the spouse's death date may be found. A woman may be indicated as "l'epouse de Jean Bourbeau" meaning the wife of the living Jean Bourbeau or "la veuve de Jean Bourbeau" which shows her husband had predeceased her. A man might be noted as "l'epoux de Ursule Monet" or "le veuf de Ursule Monet" which shows either that his wife was alive at his time of death or that he was already a widower when he died.
If the person was not married, the record may simply not have listed any relationships or may have given the marital status of the deceased as "cèlibat" or "cèlibataire" (unmarried). However, one cannot take the lack of marital status in a record to mean the deceased had never been married. In several cases I found a widower with no mention of his late spouse's name.
The witnesses ("temoins") were usually the priest and a lay person or other church assistant. Therefore, one should not expect to find the witnesses were related to the deceased. Scanning the 1851 records from which the above actual entry for Emilie Vermet was copied, shows the same two witnesses in most of the records for "sépultures" that year. Jean-Baptiste Sancer was the parish priest and Benjamin Desroches was the other witness who never signed. (Probably he was unable to read and write. Obviously literacy was not a requirement to fill the position of witness.) Thus, if either witness was related to the deceased, it would be a coincidence.
BURIALS OF UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE
During epidemics many entries were listed for one day. They may have been separate entries or may have been grouped together. Often the group entries gave names but these individuals may not have been listed in the index. In other cases, it simply gave the number of females and males with the age range of the group.
In some "orphelin" or "orpheline" was indicated with or without the orphaned child's name. In many cases even when named, the orphan had only a given name but no surname. Perhaps these were the "inconnu" (of unknown parentage) found in prior baptism records.
In many cases unidentified or group services were for paupers or recent immigrants. However, in some cases there may just have been too many victims to list separately. This means the burial or death date of an ancestor may not be found by name in the parish registers if he or she were stricken ill and died during a massive epidemic. However, let us hope you find all the "sépulture" records of your ancestors so you may close the final chapter of their lives.
Browse the resources at GlobalGenealogy.com:
Printed & Digital Books
Genealogy, Vital Records & History
Listed By Country or Topic