Genealogists want to know more. Names, dates, and places are not enough. Being curious creatures, we realize that we must know the records to fully understand the facts they provide. We need to learn how the sausage is made.
October is billed as a spooky month. I will start it with a law resource to help you to better understand the how and why of death reporting and burials. I stumbled across these titles while trying to understand more about two puzzling death certificates. I commented at home that I just found the coolest books on funeral and cemetery laws, and quickly learned that you must choose your audience.
So, hey! I found the coolest books on funeral and cemetery laws!
Most titles deal with U.S. laws, but there are some from England and Great Britain. Funeral and mortuary laws and resources are in one category, and cemetery laws are in another. There is some overlap.
There are volumes that list statutory laws in different places at the same time, and volumes that discuss relevant case law. There are books that list licensed embalmers for some states. If you had ancestors in the funeral industry, those might be of interest. If you had ancestors who died and were buried, the other books might help. I kid!
One neat book is American Funeral Law: A Manual of Law Affecting Funeral Directors and Embalmers. Don’t be squeamish. The book is not gory. Burial rights and duties, coroner law, and liability for funeral expenses are some of the chapter titles. Part two is a digest of state laws and regulations, sort of one-stop shopping for funeral laws in the United States around 1924, when the book was published. You wanted 1910? Work your way back in your state’s statutes to see if anything changed between then and when this volume was printed.
I was interested in New York’s laws, and there are pages (261–270) devoted to the state and to New York City. Many laws and regulations suggest that additional records were created.
For example, “Regulation 9. LISTS OF BURIALS TO BE FURNISHED. A list of the names of all persons buried in any cemetery, or cremated in any crematory within the city limits, with the number of the permit and the date of burial, must be returned weekly to the borough office of the Department of Health in which the cemetery or crematory is situated by the superintendent or other person in charge of such cemetery or crematory.” [pp. 269–270]
When this book was written, public and church funerals were prohibited in New York City if people died from certain contagious diseases. The funerals had to be private and attended only by those whose attendance was necessary. It was illegal to even invite anyone else. [p. 270]
That knowledge could certainly change a biographical sketch.
See what the books tell you about the period from death to burial in your ancestor’s time and place, and if that knowledge causes you to examine the records you have more closely and changes your assumptions.
To see the books, visit the Historic Funeral and Cemetery Law Resources page.
- Arthur L. H. Street, American Funeral Law: A Manual of Law Affecting Funeral Directors and Embalmers (Chicago, Illinois: Trade Periodical Company, 1924); digital image, Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=zCVQAQAAMAAJ : accessed 1 October 2022).