Why don’t Spanish death certificates include a cause of death?

If you have ever had to order a death certificate from a Spanish registry office, you may have noticed that the cause of death is crossed out, or simply does not exist. To many of us, the absence of a cause of death on a death certificate makes no sense whatsoever. You may or may not agree with doing away with what genealogists consider a vital part of their genealogy research, but today we will try to figure out why Spanish death certificates no longer include this crucial piece of information.

The modern Spanish Civil Registry system was created in 1870 during the reign of King Amadeo I, who imported the idea of a non-ecclesiastical registration of deaths from his native Italy; the law came into effect on 1 January 1871, and began by only recording births, marriages and deaths (not including stillbirths or children who died within the first 24h after birth). Nowadays, the Civil Registry covers a wider range of events, as it also records stillbirths, tutelages and legal representations.

This death certificate, from 1935, shows the cause of death stricken out and the Order reference beside it. The cause of death is still partially legible.

At first, like in most other civil registration forms like the English, French or Italian systems, Spanish death certificates did include a cause of death. This was mentioned either in a handwritten form or in the practical an easy-to-fill-out printed forms which became commonplace at the end of 1800’s.

This death certificate, dated from 1936 but issued in the 21st century, has not had the cause of death crossed out.

Everything changed in the 20th century, however, when the Ministry of Justice considered that the cause of death was “alien to the registration institution” – in other words, it was outside the scope of the Civil Registry’s purpose, as a cause of death does not contribute to the Registry’s goal of certifying someone’s death, which should otherwise continue to include a person’s identity (name, surname, parentage, date of birth, etc.).

For this very reason, the Order of the Spanish Ministry of Justice of 6th June 1994 decreed that, from then on, no death certificates would include a cause of death (which is included, however, in medical reports issued upon a person’s death but which are not kept at the Civil Registry office).

This death certificate, from 1996, does not include a cause of death but still includes the space where it would have been stated.

By virtue of this very Order, modern-day certificates simply do not include a cause of death. Deaths which were registered prior to 1994 would naturally include a cause of death, but Civil Registry officers are now expected to cross out the cause of death. Luckily, not everyone follows this rule, and we may still be lucky enough to find a cause of death stated in a pre-1994 certificate.  Sadly, this is not always the case, but depending on the civil servant’s efficiency, we may still be able to make out the writing underneath the ink, as shown on the first image above.

This blank death certificate, issued in 2004, no longer includes a space for the cause of death.

So, how can you find out what your Spanish ancestors died of if the cause is not mentioned on their death certificate? Well, it won’t always be easy, but I can think of several ways and methods that you can look for clues (and ensure that future generations can easily track the cause of death of their forefathers, whether it’s for medical reasons or out of general interest):

  • Burial records: many burial records in Spain, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, feature the cause of death.
  • Family history and previous genealogical research: check stored information passed on orally or in writing by members of your family who knew your ancestors.
  • Medical or clinical records: although difficult to access (they would probably be stored in local hospitals or clinics), these may be of invaluable help. It is likely that only direct descendants will have access to such records.
  • Birth records: sometimes a marginal annotation on the birth record mentioning the person in question passed away may include the actual cause of death.
  • Newspaper clippings: there was a time when newspapers would publish daily announcements of deaths recorded in the local registry office, and mentioned the person’s name, age and cause of death.
  • Obituaries: very often a cause of death is given on obituaries. Phrases like “after a long illness” may imply a wasting disease like cancer or tuberculosis. If the person was killed in a war, a newspaper obituary would most likely make a reference to the circumstances.

If you want to apply for a death certificate in Spain, you can do so by ordering a copy via the Ministry of Justice website. Certificates are free, but the date and place of death (town or city) need to be included in the request. For more information I advise you read my article on how to order a Spanish death certificate.

This modern-day obituary remembers the deaths of two brothers who were murdered shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

Posted in Civil Registration, Death, Spain | Leave a comment

My Living DNA experience

Those of you who followed my blog in April will remember how I was singled out at Who Do You Think You Are? Live by Living DNA’s Marketing Director Hannah Morden– I suppose constant tweeting, not to mention purchasing 12 DNA kits on the spot – sort of made me stand out…

Anyway, thanks to that rather serendipitous encounter, I took a test with Living DNA, the results of which would ordinarily have taken between around 8-12 weeks to arrive. This week, after just over an amazing six weeks’ wait, I got my results!

Swabbing and giving a grateful smile to Living DNA for our serendipitous encounter at the same time is not easy, I can tell you!

Now, you will probably remember that so far the only company I have tested with is Ancestry.co.uk. The results I received a year ago showed what I (more or less) already knew, or at least half suspected – that I am a big fat European mongrel. A chunk of British ancestry here, a splash of Spanish (“Iberian”) blood there, and a sprinkling of Italian (“Italy/Greece”) genes all concocted with traits of other, smaller ethnic groups appear to have made me what I am today. So how would my Ancestry results compare with those of Living DNA?

Well, I certainly hope that no one out there is getting tattoos with their ethnic group percentages, because we must remember that any estimations we get are just that, mere estimations, and are actually only based on whichever company’s existing database. In other words, your results may and will vary depending on the company you test with, and will also change with the passing of time, as more and more users test.

So, how did I fare with Living DNA? Well, for someone whose recent (300 years or so) ancestry is vaguely 40% Spanish, 25% British (in my case mainly West Midland English with a pinch of Welsh) and about 30% Italian, I was amazed to find a large chunk of purported French DNA (over 70%!). But then again, France is a large country, with a lot of mixed peoples, and my Italian ancestors did come from northern Italy, not that far from the French border. Then again, this may well be because the markers contained within my DNA are for the time being too different from the markers that Living DNA’s lab currently use – thus they compare somewhat differently from my other Ancestry DNA results.

At first glance, my autosomal DNA results did not look very detailed…

My Spanish side was also represented in my Living DNA results, although strangely it only merited 5.5% – again, my family comes from a very specific region on the north-western coast, and the migration of peoples may well have mixed up my ethnic Spanish “purity”. And, as mentioned, the markers from that particular area may not yet have been sufficiently developed by Living DNA’s lab.

…but alas, here were my detailed autosomal DNA results!

Alas, enter Great Britain. Only 1.5 %? My English grandmother, whose whole ancestry back to the 1750’s is firmly English – but for one distant Welsh female ancestor- would definitely be shocked. And even more surprising is that there is no sign of Irish DNA, which according to Ancestry is present in my veins, though I can’t exactly explain how. Maybe Ancestry means to say “Celtic”, which would explain the Welsh side…?

All this may seem confusing. In fact it is, but I am not too concerned: the markers that Ancestry, Living DNA and the other DNA testing companies use are different; the labs they use are different, and as far as I can tell, their definition of ethnic groups is also different. I am sure that with the passing of time my results both on Living DNA and any other company I may decide to test with will continue to evolve and become similar (if not identical) to each other.

But that’s not all – for me, getting my autosomal DNA results was not the main reason for testing with Living DNA. You will understand my joy when I also received my Haplogroup subclades for my Y-DNA (direct paternal line) and Mt-DNA (direct female line) – Living DNA test 20,000 markers for their Y-DNA test, and 4,500 snips for the Mt-DNA test. Now, you may know by now that my dad’s direct paternal line comes from NW Italy, an area which was in fact at one point ruled by Sardinia. It all seemed to fit perfectly when I realised that my Haplogroup is quite common not just in the Western Balkans (what? I’m Bosnian/Croatian now?) but also in Sardinia!

The path presumably followed by my maternal ancestors from Eve to my Mum.

My mother’s Mt-DNA signature was equally fascinating – and puzzling. She got a Haplogroup which turns out to be more common among northern Scandinavian peoples – in other words, a far cry from my NW Spanish ancestors…

Once I had time to digest my results and try to ponder the questions that were all of a sudden popping into my head, I wrote down the pros and cons of this testing, and decided to get some answers from Living DNA themselves. Here are some pointers which will hopefully help you clarify some of the questions you might have:

  • Living DNA’s single test available offers autosomal, Y-DNA (for males only) and Mt-DNA results. Considering the cost (129€ plus delivery), it is very good value.
  • Unlike other DNA testing companies, they cover the whole world, which means you can receive your DNA kit pretty much wherever you live.
  • Living DNA is, as far as I know, the only company of its kind based in Europe and which consequently complies with EU legislation.
  • Their website has a sleek, modern look to it, although finding your way around is not always 100% evident because of the features they include – but this is a minor detail in my opinion.
  • Living DNA’s level of detail is pretty much unprecedented, as it allows breaking down ethnic groups into much smaller subgroups. The UK is the country with the largest group of ethnic sub-groups, but I understand other regions are in the pipeline to become more detailed in the months to come.
  • Downloading one’s raw DNA file will also soon become possible, and they are working to make this feature compatible with sites such as GEDmatch which will helpfully allow users to compare their results with thousands of others.
  • As a genealogist, the biggest flaw I found with Living DNA’s current set-up was the lack of a DNA comparison feature. For me, being able to compare my autosomal DNA results with those of other users is crucial as I am more interested in knowing if I have any close genetic relatives, as opposed to finding out if I’m a quarter French. Happily I just heard DNA comparison will be available as early as next July, so that will hopefully be a problem taken care of. If this feature is added, Living DNA will definitely become the most cost-effective of all available DNA tests.
  • One detail which I think can be improved on their website is the accessibility to one’s autosomal results. It took me a while to figure out that by clicking on the “plus” sign I could actually see my results in greater detail. But again, a minor detail which should nevertheless be made more accessible, in my opinion.
  • I also understand that there will soon be an additional feature which will allow data to be managed by a “key owner”, in other words, your data can be managed by a relative after your death.
  • Living DNA’s current database is not as large as other companies’, but they are growing exponentially every month. I have already made it clear to Living DNA that I would be happy to volunteer some friends and relatives whose grandparents were born within an 80km radius of each other – thus allowing the company to increase their markers database and allow everyone’s results to appear in greater detail.

Living DNA has the benefit of being a fairly small, innovative and new company with all the good qualities of a family-run business. I find they are keen to listen to users and are happy to get suggestions, which is why I am ready to give them a vote of confidence. I certainly look forward to many great things from Living DNA in the near future!

Disclaimer: All views expressed here are my own personal opinions. I do not work for Living DNA or any other DNA-testing company, or any company operating within the field of genealogy or genetics.


Posted in DNA, England, Galicia, Genealogy, Genetic Genealogy, Italy, LivingDNA, Who Do You Think You Are? | 1 Comment

Using DNA to find the common ancestor

If you have ever taken an autosomal DNA test with any company, be it Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, Living DNA, etc., you will have seen that your results will appear on the company’s database along with a (generally long) list of others users who match your own DNA. Now, I am not a genetic genealogy expert, and all I have learnt (and I am still learning) generally comes from experience and from reading articles & papers, online professional videos and specialised magazines. This said, genetic genealogy is not difficult to apply to your “traditional” genealogy research – if you know how to apply it. Here’s a good example of what I mean:

Some months ago I was contacted by someone in America called Kathryn (not her real name), who appeared among my DNA matches as an (estimated) 4th-6th cousin. That means that Kathryn is, theoretically and at the very closest, a great-great-great-grandchild of my great-great-great-grandparents. Of course, the calculation is based solely on the amount of the DNA that we have in common, which necessarily begs the question “Why do we share this amount of DNA, and not more, or less?”. As I’m sure you know, we inherit 50% of our DNA from our father, and the other 50% from our mother. However, our more distant ancestors’ DNA, starting with our grandparents, is inherited randomly via our parents. In other words, we may get 50% from dad and 50% from mum, but that does not mean that we get 25% of DNA from each grandparent: in fact, as a rule, we don’t. We might, for instance, get 35% of DNA from our paternal grandfather, but just 15% of DNA from our paternal grandmother. That’s the randomness of DNA for you! The below diagram explains the random inheritance pattern of DNA more simplistically.

As I have managed to track down the name and origin of most of my great-great-great-grandparents, I thought that my genetic coincidence with Kathryn was too good to ignore. The first step was, naturally, to ask Kathryn where her immediate ancestors came from. Like me, she has Italian blood, but her ancestors apparently came from Southern Italy, while my Italian forefathers were from a small area sandwiched between the hills of Northern Italy. Not a likely scenario for our presumed nearest common ancestor to have come from. We therefore turned our attention to her father’s family, and this time we seemed to strike gold, as her paternal line has a connection with Galicia, the north-western part of Spain where practically all of my mother’s ancestors lived as far back as the 1600’s.

The next step was to cross-check if our suspicious about a geographical connection were right, and so I had my mother tested so I could compare her results with Kathryn’s. Not only did they share a match, but they also seemed to be more closely related, as Kathryn shared more centimorgans with my mother than with me. We were definitely on the right track.

I then asked Kathryn to share with me some of her recent family history which might help me to unearth a common name which I could follow up. She said her paternal grandfather had been born in Spain in the early 1900’s, and that she had once seen his parents’ names on his birth certificate, which she has since lost. However, there seemed to be some inconsistencies and loose ends with her story when it came to the identity of her grandfather’s father. She said he belonged to a middle-class family who started a transport business which later developed into a bus company. She also said her great-grandfather had died young (she had even seen his grave in Galicia on a visit some years back), and that his widow, who was of lower birth, had been turned away by her in-laws and had left Spain for America, leaving her son to be brought up for foster parents.

With the names she was able to provide me, I searched online newspaper archives to see if I could find any reference to either Kathryn’s grandfather or his parents, and luckily I found an obituary for a man who died in 1915 whose name matched that which Kathryn had provided. I immediately sent for the man’s Spanish death certificate, but when I received the document I made a very curious discovery: the man, called Manuel, was unmarried, so there was no reference to a wife, nor to any children. I again cross-checked with Ann to see if the story she had told me may have been wrong, but she was sure we had the right man. It wasn’t difficult to track him down in the Spanish census at the turn of the century, and this helped me to prove that Kathryn’s story about a family-run bus company was absolutely spot on. Luckily, both of Manuel’s parents were listed, as was their respective place of birth: the father was born in the Castilian province of León, the mother in Madrid. So it was clear that the family did not have any immediate genetic ties with Galicia, the area w were focusing on.

My attention then shifted to the mother of Manuel’s child, Josefa, whose full name was not very clear to us. I searched high and low for a birth certificate for their illegitimate son, to no avail. Unfortunately Kathryn’s efforts to retrieve the document she had seen years before were not yielding any results either. It was only then that we decided to try a different source, and we applied to the church archive for a baptism certificate. Their response was positive, in that they had found a corrected baptism certificate, issued in the 1970’s (in other words, some seven decades after the child had been born) where his parents’ names were mentioned. The document not only confirmed the father’s identity (it was, incidentally, the man called Manuel whom we had previously been looking for), but it also served to confirm the mother’s full name: Josefa Adega López (the last two being her two surnames, as is the Spanish custom).

Armed with a full name, I decided to track Josefa down in the census; her son’s baptism certificate confirmed she came from Ferrol, the same city as some of my ancestors, and so I decided to look her up. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that she too seemed to be illegitimate, as I was able to find her living with her elder sister and their single mother in the 1887 census, when Josefa would have been about five years old.

The fact that Josefa was illegitimate naturally opened the possibility of never actually finding out who her real father was. But before committing myself to searching aimlessly for a purported father, I asked my grandfather’s only surviving sister to take an autosomal DNA test too. The reason for this was that she was my theoretical link to Kathryn’s family, but as of yet I had not proven this much other than by testing my mother. The results confirmed that my great-aunt and Kathryn were indeed fairly closely related (still within a 4th-6th cousin relationship), and although I still was not 100% sure of how we are connected, at least we knew our link came via my maternal grandfather’s family.

Unfortunately my application for Josefa Adega López’s birth certificate has been unsuccessful: she was either recorded under a different name, in a different location, or she was not registered at all. Church records in the area are noticeably hard to come by, and so for the time being I have little to go on via Kathryn’s family line.

Although I do not think I will be able to confirm the link between our two families (not, that is, until there is sufficient documentary evidence to prove it – and, as this is a case of an illegitimate child, I am not raising my hopes too high), I decided once again to go down the genetic path. (There’s a family tree chart at the end of the article which will help you follow the story as I explain it.)

As Josefa was born in 1882, I laid out who of my family could have actually “done the deed”, and I found a rather curious set of options: my own great-grandfather was born in 1879, and so he would have been too young to father a daughter at the time. His elder brother were also too young to become fathers in their own right, BUT their father (my great-great-grandfather) could easily have fathered Josefa out of wedlock. I just hope for my great-great-grandmother’s sake that he didn’t!

The other option, which is tantalisingly suggestive, is my great-great-grandmother’s only brother, Juan. As Juan was born in 1836, he would have been 46 at the time of Josefa’s birth, so he could well have been her biological father. He was, at the time, still single, and he may well have had an affair with Josefa’s mother. However, in about 1890 he decided the time had come for him to marry. His choice of bride was none other than his own niece Flora, by whom he would go on to have two children.

Now, my grandfather’s family is not very extensive, and I know very few relatives on that side whom I could ask for a DNA sample. One of them, curiously, is a descendant of that uncle-niece marriage, and so I have decided to ask her to have a DNA test. I may also ask another cousin who is descended from another brother of Flora’s. If Flora’s descendant’s DNA results show a much higher DNA proportion with Kathryn than with me (Flora’s descendant, after all, would be related to Kathryn not only via Flora herself, but also via Juan), then we may just well have found the identity of Josefa’s biological father. If, on the other hand, both Flora’s descendant shares the same amount of DNA as me and our other shared cousin, we may well need to take our documentary and genetic research  a generation back. Only time, and DNA, will tell if we are on the right track!

Either of the two men in a red box may have fathered Kathryn’s great-grandmother. My third cousins’ DNA may prove it.

Posted in DNA, Galicia, Genealogy, Genetic Genealogy, Illegitimacy, Spain | 3 Comments

Cancer & My Family’s Genetic Inheritance

The pink ribbon has become a symbol of cancer awareness and battling cancer, but the illness continues to be taboo for many people because of its perception as a social disease.

I’m sure you have come across someone who has had cancer. You may even be a cancer survivor yourself. Or you may well be battling cancer as you read this lines. The sad truth is that cancer is one of the most common illnesses among human beings, and nowadays one of the world’s biggest killers. Happily, advances in medicine and science are enabling doctors and medical teams around the globe to treat and cure cancers which 10 or 20 years ago would have been incurable from the outset.

Cancer is wrongly perceived as a “modern” illness because of the commonality and the frequency with which it strikes nowadays (in fact cancerous tissue has been found on Egyptian mummies dating as far back as 1600 b.C). Today it has replaced smallpox, cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis as one of the biggest threats to human health. And yet, for all its apparent newness, cancer and the tumours that it causes have been present for millenia. They were, indeed, much less common in the past because until very recently people, rich and poor, were far more likely to die of many other illnesses at a younger age. Our ancestors and their families usually died before they got a chance to develop a slow-acting illness like cancer; in other words, people rarely lived long enough to suffer from cancer. It is only thanks to medical advances and improvements in public hygiene and sanitation that cities and towns began to offer better living conditions, and so, with the decline of common epidemics came the rise of other illnesses not directly (or at least, not so directly) linked with living conditions.

In my personal case, cancer has been present in my family for generations. How many generations I will probably never know, but it has certainly been there for a long time. I grew up knowing my maternal grandfather had died of oesophageal cancer when he was in his late 50’s. In fact, the illness consumed him so quick he died during a trip to Madrid to see a specialist; little could he suspect that he would make his way back home in a coffin. Tragically, his younger brother, my great-uncle, died of exactly the same type of cancer two years later, in spite of the fact that he was physically active, was not a smoker and didn’t drink a drop of alcohol (unlike my grandfather, who took pleasure in his daily glass of wine). And so, the dreaded illness struck two members of my immediate family some forty years after they had both lost their mother to… yes, you got it: cancer. My great-grandmother died in her late 40’s, eaten away by breast cancer.

For years all this seemed a simple, straight-forward family tragedy. I accepted the fact that cancer had made its entry into the family, and quietly vanished. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I realised illnesses like cancer don’t simply “disappear”: one of my Mum’s sisters was diagnosed with cancer for a second time in her life, and succumbed not long after that.

A few years elapsed until I got the dreaded phone call from my Mum to tell me she had noticed a lump on one of her breasts and that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Luckily, following her sister’s demise, my Mum had taken the precaution of going to the doctor for a check-up once a year and made sure she was thoroughly screened for breast cancer. In a way, the diagnosis wasn’t a huge surprise, but I don’t think any of us expected what followed next: not only did she have cancer in one breast – she had cancer in the other breast too, and (and this is extraordinary) both cancers were not related to each other. Her doctor told her it was a very rare occurrence and soon started asking questions about the occurrence of cancer in the family. My Mum didn’t think twice about telling him about her recent family history (her sister, her father, her uncle, her grandmother…), and soon we seemed to be getting onto something much more sinister than pure rotten luck.

By the time my Mum’s diagnosis came in, I was well into my tenth year into family research and genealogy, so you will understand my “excitement” when she started asking me questions about such-and-such relative, and asking what they died of. Curiously, until that time I had not paid much attention to death certificates, having focused mainly on expanding my family tree via collateral branches, ordering birth and marriage certificates, but I soon began searching for the necessary documents to start filling in the gaps.

Knowing my great-grandmother died of breast cancer in 1937, I started looking at her only brother and her eight sisters, and what they each died of. Three of the girls died very young of common infant illnesses, and the brother died of heart failure at an advanced age, so I shifted my focus to the other sisters who did make it to adulthood. The results were shocking: of the five remaining sisters, four of them died of some form of cancer (one of liver cancer, two of breast cancer, and one of lung cancer).

My grandfather in the 1930’s flanked by his mother (r) and her sister. Both women died of breast cancer.

I immediately leaped onto the previous generation to try and find a link to any other cancer-related deaths on either of their parents’ sides. My great-grandmother’s mother died of a diabetic coma, which doesn’t spell cancer to me, but her father did die of cirrhosis of the liver, which I understand may well have been a consequence of liver cancer (and which, perhaps not coincidentally, is actually given as the cause of death for one of his daughters). It seemed like a possible lead, so I researched how my great-great-grandfather’s ten brothers and sisters’ ended their days: again, I discarded two sisters who died in infancy of unknown causes, as well as a third brother who died of smallpox. Of the remaining brothers, one died of what was diagnosed as chronic gastroenteritis (the fact it was recorded as “chronic” makes me wonder may have been something else that brought on his demise?) and the other died of broncho-ataxia (a lung ailment) and pellagra (a deficiency disease). Thus, no immediate signs of cancer among the brothers… but what about the sisters? My great-great-grandfather had a total of seven sisters; leaving out the two mentioned earlier who died in infancy, I have not been able to track down a death record for three of the others. However, cancer is once again given as the cause of death for the youngest two. In fact, the youngest of all, who died of a reproduced mammarian carcinoma aged 39 left a widower and three children aged between five and one year old; I later discovered that the youngest of these also succumbed to breast cancer aged 53.

My research obviously got tougher as I moved backwards in time. Neither of the siblings’ parents appear to have died of a cancer-related illness, and in fact both reached a fairly advanced age. I thought then of turning to their respective siblings, but the father only had a brother (who died of unknown causes aged 57) and the mother only had a sister (who, perhaps suspiciously, died of “rheumatism and flatus”; this again does not necessarily imply cancer, but who knows if rheumatic-type pain could have been caused by an internal tumour of some kind?). Any research into the origins of cancer within the family appears to end with the previous generation at the start of the 19th century, for which no cause of death is given. The matriarch of the branch died aged 35 of “a natural death”, which may well have been a euphemism for something much more sinister, but alas, I don’t think I will ever find out the real reason.

With such a history, our doctor took immediate action and sent my Mum to do some tests for BRCA1 and BRCA2, hereditary genes which are linked to specific types of cancer, most of which are found in my recent family history. My Mum in fact tested positive for one of those types of mutations, as did one of her sisters three surviving sisters. Other members of the family have decided not to test, as they prefer not to know if they are carriers.

A family tree showing members of a family and the inheritance pattern of breast and ovarian cancer.

Perhaps prompted by my natural curiosity as a genealogist to unravel family mysteries, I was sure that I needed to know if I too was a carrier. My brother and I tested for BRCA2 (the gene my Mum has inherited from her father), and much to our delight and relief, in both cases we came out as negative. This does not mean that we will never have cancer, but our chances of developing the illness are just the same as anybody else’s who does not have a genetic mutation.

So please, please, please, if you have the slightest suspicion that there may be a genetic disease in your family, don’t hesitate to speak to your GP. If you want to know more about the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations you can check the following links:




Posted in Genealogy, Illness, Spain, Women | 1 Comment

Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2017

Well, I’m back. Or should I say I survived? My calendar over the last four days has been filled with nothing but talks about genealogy, genomics, resources and (to quote someone I met at WDYTYA? Live 2017) “nerdgasms”. Yes, Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2017 is over, sadly, but I have to say that despite the pain in my feet, my headache and a swollen throat, I can honestly say it was well worth the short hop on a two-propeller plane and the three-night stay in a Birmingham airport hotel.

This was my second time attending WDYTYA? Live, but unlike last year’s one-day visit, I decided to prolong my stay by an extra day. Having arrived on Thursday afternoon, I made my way to the hotel, where I had arranged to meet two friends from Twitter (Sonia Sanchez and J. Carmen Smith, escorted as ever by her faithful Jim) with whom I have been in correspondence for a while. Over the past few months we have been helping each other out with each other’s research in Spain and the UK, so we couldn’t resist the temptation to meet up and exchange views and notes. I had a number of records to give to J. Carmen concerning her Spanish ancestors, which I’m sure have kept her busy since travelling back home! To compensate my lack of certificates for S. Sanchez, I gave her a packet of Belgian chocolate which I trust she will munch as she too reflects on what she has learnt, grasped and taken away from her two-day visit to Birmingham.

My absolutely highlight was meeting J. Carmen Smith (and Jim!) and Sonia Sanchez. A evening I shall always remember!

My first day at the show this year was marked by a slightly more planned approach to the stands I wanted to visit. It was difficult to avoid the Ancestry stand(s) as you came in, and even harder to avoid buying a few DNA kits for just 49GBP each (I won’t say how many I bought for fear of enraging my parents, who will probably read this entry). In any case, it was enough to make me momentarily a trending topic on Twitter and made me instantly recognisable even to Ancestry’s competitors. I also attended two workshops, one on Civil Registration: A Registrar’s View (which I found very interesting, if not a bit condensed for just 45 minutes) and one on High Definition AncestryDNA, given by the LivingDNA team. I confess the latter felt a bit like a sales pitch at first, but I was fascinated by the amount of information they were able to squeeze into a 45-minute presentation, not least because they showed the various ethnic groups within the UK (something which AncestryDNA has so far failed to break down).

Whoops, I did it again!

On Friday I also took the chance to speak to an expert at the FindMyPast booth, and was fortunate to speak to Audrey Collins (who some of you may know as the co-author of the Pen & Sword book on BMD registration. OK, so we weren’t able to bring down the brickwall, but we had a delightful chat and discussed other topics of less-genealogical consequence. It goes without saying I couldn’t resist buying a copy of her book and asking her to autograph it, as a reminder of our 20-minute conversation. Friday was also the day I was able to meet familiar faces from the world of Twitter. I confess I had been on the lookout for them, but the amount of people makes it quite difficult to just “bump into” anyone at WDYTYA? Live! At any rate, I did get to see Andrew, Steve and Jane, so it was nice to put a face to the Twitter handle!

With Andrew, Sonia and Jane (courtesy of Steve, of Atcherley fame)

I should say at this point that my first day was spent in the company of Sonia, and I have to admit it was much more enjoyable than attending the show alone. It gave us a chance to look at stuff together, exchange views and keep each other company (it is amazing how easy it is to feel alone in a big crowd!). Upon returning to the hotel, Sonia and I decided to tackle my Mary Elizabeth Vickress brickwall, to no avail, although it was great fun. Next time I promise we’ll try to sort out some of her brickwalls instead!

With Carole (of The Surname Society fame)

Saturday was my second (and last) day at the show. It was quite crowded, with a higher influx of families attending. As I was alone, I kept an eye open for other possible Twitter friends – my prayers were answered when Carole (of The Surname Society, whom I shall probably be joining very soon) recognised me thanks to my Converse shoes. Sometimes it pays to stand out! I also met Marie Cappart, the foremost genealogist in Belgium, who was busy attracting passers-by to hr stand. I was also recognised by another, unfamiliar face: passing by the LivingDNA stand to have a look at which ethnic regions they have managed to identify, a nice young lady approached me asking if I was interested in their product. She immediately confessed she had recognised me following my Tweet on the AncestryDNA kits, and very kindly offered me a complimentary kit – just like that! Well, how could I say no? I confess my interest in this new company is growing, and although I am still going to test a few more relatives with Ancestry, time will tell whether I shift my focus to a company which offers a more broken-down ethnicity result.

Swabbing and giving a grateful smile to LivingDNA at the same time is not easy, I can tell you!

My day was complete when I attended my last workshop on Ancient British DNA (given by Mark G. Thomas – highly interesting, if not a bit too technical and long-winded for my tired head by then). I couldn’t leave the show without passing by the FIBIS stand to see if a nice lady called Penny (whom I met last year, as you’ll remember) was there and see if she had found anything about her own Indian background. Penny remembered me and we spent a few minutes chatting about how DNA testing might help her to figure out her Indian-Burmese origins.To encourage her I gave her my last packet of Belgian chocolate, which I am told she will start enjoying soon “when Lent is over”.

And so, my friends, WDYTYA? Live 2017 drew to a close, and I walked back to my hotel room with far too many DNA kits and too much merchandise to test even my own sturdy carry-on luggage. Alas, another year has gone by, but I can’t wait to go back next year!

Just as well I didn’t attend WDYTYA three days…


Posted in Birmingham, DNA, Galicia, Genealogy, Who Do You Think You Are? | 1 Comment

How to order a Spanish death certificate?

One of the most common questions I usually get when discussing genealogy is “how can I get my ancestor’s death certificate from Spain?”. The procedure is actually pretty straight-forward and it usually takes a few days – if you’re lucky!- to reach your doorstep. Oh, and most importantly, it’s free of charge, wherever you live!

Going on an official government’s website can be a bit confusing, not least because of the language barrier, which is why I have prepared a simple PDF manual that will hopefully help you to order a Spanish death certificate step by step.

Remember you can always contact me if you have additional questions or if anything remains unclear!

Posted in Civil Registration, Death, Galicia, Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment

Understanding Spanish Surnames

In recent times family researchers in England, the USA and beyond  have asked me to clarify a matter which concerns their Spanish ancestry. It is, in fact, one of the most common questions I tend to get: how does the Spanish surname system work (and by that, I mean the system which regulates the inheritance of family names from one generation to another)?

Like in most cases in Western Europe, surname usage was introduced in Medieval times to differentiate citizens, mainly for tax purposes. Initially, surnames were not passed on systematically from a parent to his or her children; children often had the choice of which family name they wanted to be known by. In practice, this meant that a couple’s children could easily have different “surnames” and still be, legally and biologically, full siblings.

It was also during the medieval period that some of today’s most common Spanish surnames came into existence, developing from simple patronymic variations of first names. These are easily recognisable by their ending -ez (or the variant -es, which is predominant in Portuguese). This ending denotes “son of” or “of the family of”, and so the surname Fernández means “son of Fernando”, Pérez means “son of Pero/Pedro”, Rodríguez means “son of Rodrigo”, and so on. Most surnames which end in -oz  are usually derived from first names (like Muñoz, which means “son of Munio”); in this last instance, however, we should note that surnames like Galduroz, which also end in -oz, are not derived from first names; Galduroz is a toponymical surname, as it derives from a place name (Galduroz being a town in the Spanish province of Navarre). Nowadays, seven out of ten of the most common surnames in Spain end in -ez!


However, the pattern in which a surname was inherited changed over time. Over the centuries, the system became more rigid, and thus left less space for individual choice. In fact, until the late 1700’s it was fairly common for men to use their father’s last name, while women would tended to use their mother’s surname. And so, we may still find cases as recently as the 1790’s where two siblings share both parents but do not make use of the same surname. This custom was discontinued by the 1800’s, although it is likely to come up in any Spanish family tree which stretches roughly seven or eight generations back.

But that is not all. You may have often wondered why Spaniards have such “long” names. This is due, partially, to giving children several Christian names (a tradition which is not as popular today as it was, for instance, one or two generations ago); this tradition often stemmed from the belief that being given several names implied Divine protection on behalf of the saint whose name the child bore – thus, the more names a child had, the larger the chances to lead a longer and healthier life. But going back to surnames, the fact that Spaniards have long names is partly explained by the fact that Spanish tradition allocates not one but two surnames to an individual (historically even to children born in Spain to foreign parents). To understand how this works I have created a simplified (fake) family tree:


As per the above, you can see that Pedro García López, who has two surnames (García and López) marries Catalina Galindo Fernández. Their son, Antonio García Galindo, therefore inherits his father’s first surname and, in the second place, his mother’s first surname. When Antonio marries Sara Rodríguez Pena, their children will have the surname García in first place, and the maternal surname Rodríguez in second place. Antonio’s sister Luisa, on the other hand, married a man called Eduardo Ortega Sánchez. Their children will bear Eduardo’s first surname followed by Luisa’s first surname, thus becoming Ortega García. This means that surnames in the paternal line tend to be perpetuated in future generations, while maternal surnames are usually lost in the next generation. Nowadays this is not necessarily so, as parents can choose the order of their children’s surnames, but the traditional practice of “father’s name first” continues to be the most usual.

After explaining the above, you may have noticed that the tree I created does not show women’s married names; this is because, quite simply, women in Spain never adopt their husband’s surname. In other words, women keep their maiden name throughout their lives.

Curiously, in some countries married women (particularly of  certain generation) used to attach their husband’s surname to their last name to denote that they were married; thus, María Cordero de Arias would seem to indicate that the woman’s husband was called Mr. Arias, and she wished to make the fact known to her interlocutor. This practice, however, is rarely used today and is not officially recognised.

During your Spanish family research, you may well encounter cases where a surname has a de/del/de la between words. It is often asserted that this “mark” denotes an ancestor who was of noble birth, and is therefore out gateway to fame and fortune. Unfortunately (no pun intended), this is very rarely the case. Surnames such as de la Iglesia or del Rey may well indicate illegitimacy somewhere in your family tree, while others like de la Plaza or de Orellana are generally considered to be toponymics, and may therefore be indicative of a place of origin (plaza meaning “square” or “meeting place” and Orellana may refer to any of the places in the Spanish-speaking world with that name).

That said, some surnames have, with the passing of time, become compounds, either by way of a hyphen (such as in Martínez-Bordiú) or by a particle which, in effect, turns two surnames into one fixed form (like García de la Concha). Just be sure, when researching your ancestors’ surnames, that you do not split surnames in the wrong place!

As you can see, there is no black or white when it comes to Spanish surnames. There are many variants, many exceptions and overall a lot of details which the researcher needs to bear in mind to avoid mistakes – but that’s what genealogy is all about, isn’t it?



Posted in Genealogy, Spain | 1 Comment