Figures of Engelbert van Immerseel and his wife on their burial monument.
Methodology Spotlight

Were your ancestors buried in a church?

Usually we talk about records that are helpful for your Dutch genealogy or family history research. Today we want to show you how interesting it can be to visit (old) churches and to look around for monumental inscriptions. According to Wikipedia, a monumental inscription is “an inscription, typically carved in stone, on a grave marker, cenotaph, memorial plaque, church monument or other memorial.” In this article we want to focus on monuments that mark burial places in churches.

Grave of Jacob Hendrickx and his family in the parish church of Meerle, Antwerp, Belgium; photograph taken in 2000 by John Boeren (photo credits: John Boeren)

Twenty years ago we took a picture of one of the tombstones in the church of Meerle, a small Flemish town not far from the Dutch-Belgian border. This stone has the following inscription:
“Hier leet begraven den eersame Iacob Hendrickx sterft den 18 februari 1688 ende de eerbare Ieneken Iacobs syn huysvrou sterft den 1 meert 1687.”
Or in English: “Here lies the honorable Jacob Hendrickx, who died on 18 February 1688, and the honorable Jeneken Jacobs, his wife, who died on 1 March 1687.

Stinking Rich

An explanation for the expression “stinking rich” is that in earlier times rich families buried their relatives in churches. The bodies in those graves would created an unpleasant smell in the church. They were rich, and they stank.

We can now say that this explanation is mainly a fabrication. Even though our ancestors dealt differently with a subject like hygiene, they did not feel like sitting in the stench of decayed bodies during church service. It is true however, that a grave in a church costed quite some money. In general, wealthy families or persons in a certain position were able to purchase a grave. Of course, not every grave was shockingly expensive. Still, the poor would be buried in the cemetery; most likely even without any kind of grave marker.

Grave monument for Engelbert van Immerseel and his wife in the church of Bokhoven (photo credits: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Amersfoort, document OF-01476)

Literature and websites

How do you know if one of your ancestors was buried in a church? We have a couple of ideas for you.

First, archival documents. You might find details about a church grave in a burial register. For example, the entry in the burial register for the abovementioned Jacob Hendrickx reads:
“Decima octava obiit Jacobus Hendricx et vigesima sepultus est in templo sub sarcophago suo.” [source: FamilySearch] (Jacobus Hendricx died on the 18th and on the 20th he was buried in the church under his own tombstone.)
It was this reference that made us so curious to visit the church in Meerle.

Second, literature. There are a lot of books that describe the interior of churches. A very interesting source for finding church graves – that still exist or that have been lost over the centuries – are the books by P.C. Bloys de Treslong Prins. He made an inventory of monumental inscriptions in the churches in the province of Zuid-Holland: Genealogische en heraldische gedenkwaardigheden in en uit de kerken der provincie Zuid-Holland (Utrecht: Oosthoek, 1922). A digital version of these books is available through Delpher. The words genealogische en heraldische gedenkwaardigheden (genealogical and heraldic memorabilia) might also lead you to other books of a similar content.

Third, websites. One of the most amazing old grave inventory projects is for the Oude Kerk [Old Church] in Amsterdam, called Tombs on the Internet. The homepage shows a plan of the church, with all the identified graves. Hovering your mouse over the digital map shows the name of the person(s) who lie(s) in the grave. Clicking on the grave leads you to further details, such as date of burial, family members, addresses. When available you get to see an image of the tombstone.

Tip

Why not visit the church in the village or town where your ancestors lived? It may suprise you what you can still find in (and around) churches. And even if the church holds no surprises, a heritage trip is always fun!

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