Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Deceased Estates: more than just the Death Notice

The Death Notice is not the only significant document among South African estate papers. There would also be a Will (if one was made), Final Liquidation and Distribution Accounts, correspondence generated either before or after the death occurred, invoices etc.

All these are potential sources of information. To stop at the Death Notice – or to allow your local researcher to do so – is a grave mistake. Surprising facts emerge in apparently unlikely pieces of paper.

Undertaker's Invoice 1911 mentions 2 carriages &
a special tram car for mourners
Although many wills aren’t particularly informative, they generally name beneficiaries and sometimes give instructions as to burial or cremation which can be helpful when trying to find the ancestor’s last resting-place. Specific bequests – sometimes of unexpected items to unlikely people - can be intriguing. Inventories give us an intimate glimpse into the ancestor’s daily life. Invoices from tradesmen claiming settlement from an estate are worth a look, especially one from the undertaker which may offer the name of the cemetery where burial took place as well as the style and cost of the obsequies considered appropriate for the deceased.

Milliner's Invoice 1869
A fairly nondescript invoice listed items of clothing which turned out to be my great great grandmother’s mourning clothes ordered from the Silk Mercer, Milliner & Straw Bonnet Manufacturer for my great great grandfather’s funeral in 1869.

Letterheads among the estate correspondence may give snippets about a family business, its street address, who the directors were, or a picture of the building where the deceased lived, worked and died. How much more interesting, relevant and memorable it would be, rather than baldly stating the company name, to include a decorative engraved letterhead as an illustration when publishing the family’s story whether on the printed page or online.
Engraved letterhead 1911

Archival documents require interpretation, digging beyond the stated facts to unearth choice nuggets of detail to enliven the family history. This makes all the difference to a narrative which, no matter how accurate the names and dates might be, reads like a bland chronology of births, marriages and deaths.


The Happy Wanderer said...

Hi Mole, you have a great blog
I stumbled onto it researching for passenger lists. I am very new to genealogy. I have only been researching seriously you could say for two months. I have done pretty well on my overseas ancestry in those two months but when it comes to SA research, it makes me want to pull my hair out. My most difficult piece of research is here in SA, as I have an ancestor who has a very common name, with no middle name. I know he died in a TB hospital around Pietermaritzburg area after the first world war? he was gassed in the WW1 which is why he contracted TB, apparently?. I feel if I could find the records of this institution I might find out more details about him. Do you perhaps have any ideas on where I might be able to get this info? I tried the Pietermaritzburg Archives and I emailed them through the official channels after advised by them, but to date I have had no response and this was about a year ago probably ?It has left me with a brick wall. Dawn

Mole said...

Anyone starting out in SA family history research is invited to read the Beginners Guide on this blog, accessible from the main page. Regards.