Catholic Records, Translation

Translating French Records: Catholic Burial Records

As with baptismal and marriage records, RC burial records adhered to the same formula, whether written in English or French. If you know the English-language formula, you can easily figure out the French. (And often the hardest part, as I’ve mentioned before, is to decipher the priest’s handwriting).

The formula, more or less:

The [day of month of year], we the undersigned priest buried in the [name of cemetery] the body of [name of deceased] who died on [date of death] at the age of [age of deceased]. Were present [names of two witnesses].

Le [day of month of year], par nous prêtre soussigné a été inhumé[e] dans le [name of cemetery/cimitière] le corps de [name of deceased], décédé[e] [date of death] à l’age de [age of deceased]. Furent présents [names of two witnesses].

Here is the burial record for Mary Moran, daughter of James Moran and Margaret Jamieson, and wife of George Cahill: 1

Burial of Mary Moran

The record reads:

S. 5 Mary Moren

Le six de juillet mil huit cents soixante douze par nous prêtre soussigné a été inhumée dans le cimitière de cette Paroisse le corps de Marie Moren épouse de George Cahill décédée à l’age de quarante ans. Furent présents Narcisse B[?] et Thomas [Campel?] qui n’ont pu signer. L.C. A[rthur?] Ouellet.

In Engish translation:

S. 5 Mary Moren

The sixth of July one thousand eight hundred and seventy two, by we the undersigned priest was buried in the cemetery of this parish the body of Marie Moren [Mary Moran] wife of George Cahill who died at the age of forty years. Were present Narcisse B[?] and Thomas [Campel?] who could not sign. L.C.A[rthur?] Ouellet.

Note that the S. stands for sépulture, for burial. The French term comes from the Latin sepultura, and you will often find S. used in English-language Catholic burial records, for sepulture (from the same Latin root).

Note also that in the margin of the register the deceased is named as ‘Mary,’ but in the record itself she is called ‘Marie.’ This kind of bilingual French-English nomenclature (where Pierre is also Peter, and Mary is also Marie, and in the very same record) is not at all uncommon in the 19th-century Catholic records of the Ottawa Valley area, where French priests sought to make sense of the English, or anglicised Irish, names of their Irish parishioners; and Irish priests likewise struggled to spell out the names of their Canadian parishioners who spoke French. In many cases, of course, those names were only spoken by parishioners who, whether French or Irish, were not literate: in rendering the spoken name into written form, the priest often had to rely upon a phonetic spelling (e.g., ‘Moren’ for ‘Moran,’ as above).

But as I’ve surely noted before, the “correct” spelling of one’s name was hardly a major preoccupation of our pre-20th-century ancestors: ‘Marie Moren’ for ‘Mary Moran’ was no big deal for Mary/Marie, who lived in a small, face-to-face community where everybody knew who she was, and who her husband was, and who their parents were, as well; and who did not yet face the modern machinery of a faceless bureaucracy which might deny her a pension cheque based on an irregularity in spelling (or, if not deny, then at least demand further documentation in order to clear up that apparent ‘irregularity’).

I cannot make out the names of the two witnesses in the above record. Narcisse B. was French, obviously, and Thomas was apparently not a Cahill: was he a Campbell? The burial witnesses were pallbearers, by the way, and were (almost) always male.

A Few Terms in Translation

French English
avant-hier day before yesterday
le cimitière the cemetery
le corps the body
décédé[e] died
furent présents were present
hier yesterday
inhumé[e] buried; interred
la paroisse the parish
sépulture burial
la veille de the night before
  1. Ile du Grand Calumet (Paroisse Ste. Anne, Co. Pontiac, PQ), Register of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1872-1880,  S. 5 (1872), Mary Moran, image 10 of 169, ( accessed 19 October 2011), Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection),  1621-1967