Finding Children Who Died Young

Looking in the records for missing children who died young in a family

I was working on digitizing the 13,110 records in the Arizona, Maricopa, Mesa City Cemetery Records, 1885-1960. Day after day as I sat in the office scanning documents, I began reading some of the records. It still makes my heart heavy to have read about all the babies and young children buried in the cemetery, many without a grave marker and likely with no other record on the earth of their short life. If they had not been buried in the Mesa City Cemetery it is almost certain that there would have been no record at all.

How many children have been born and died young in our ancestral families? How many have been forgotten and go unrecorded simply because we have failed to search a little further into unconventional records?

How do we know if all of the children in a family have been accounted for? The answer may be a simple as looking at the pattern of the ages of the children. Any sizable gap may indicate a loss of a child. In many cultures, two children with the same name probably indicates that the first one born died and a succeeding child was given the same name. But in some cases, the only records of the birth and death of a child are in less used sources like diaries, letters, Bibles, church records, newspapers etc. I suggest that cemetery records, those pertaining to the purchase of grave sites may be another window into the loss of children in a family.

Relying on periodic census records to constitute a family may become a contributing factor to missing young children who were born and died between the census records. In some of the U.S. census records the number of children born to a mother was listed and the number still living also listed. If the numbers do not agree, there is a reason to search further. Searching death records is only partially productive in this regard. There may never have been a formal death certificate made for the death of a very young child for a variety of reasons. There may have been no opportunity for a doctor to be called. The family would not have automatically involved a mortuary or funeral service. No funeral may have been held and the body may have been prepared for burial by the family or friends and buried almost without ceremony. Depending on the economic circumstances of the family, the cost of the burial may have been paid for by relatives or even the local church. As I went through the records at the Mesa Cemetery one by one I found a considerable number where the grave site had been purchased by local church leaders arguably because the family could not afford the $5 or $10 for the grave.

In my own genealogical records, I find evidence that there are missing children. In one case, there is a story of a stillborn infant passed on by oral tradition but no additional evidence has ever been found. The challenge of the term "stillborn" is that it was applied not only to those children who were actually dead when they were born but in some cases applied to children born alive who died shortly after birth.

It is true that some families saw little reason to record the deaths of very young children. But I would submit that in most families, especially more than 100 or so years ago, a gap in the ages of the children is an invitation to search further and come up with information about the death or deaths of young children.

Written by James L. Tanner. Used with permission.

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