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The unimaginable pain

There is always something unimaginably sad about the death of a child.

It isn’t that The Legal Genealogist doesn’t try to imagine it.

It’s that every time I try, my mind shies away from the pain that the parents and other family members of the child must have felt.

And looking at one of those death records this morning, that pain comes shining through without a single word being said.

It’s a death in Bremen, Germany — the city where my paternal grandmother’s family lived for generations. The particular death recorded is that of my great granduncle, Johann Hinrich Smidt, 156 years ago today.

1864 death record

He was born, the records say, at 11 o’clock at night on 3 December 1863. His father, Johannes Jacobus Smidt, reported the birth as required by law to the city Standdesamt — the registrar’s office — the very next day. The father is shown on the birth record as a 27-year-old Cooper and the mother — Johanna Henrietta (Hüneke) Smidt — as age 23.1

The parents — my second great grandparents — been married just two years when little Johann was born.2 He was their first-born child.

It’s easy to imagine how that first time father felt the day he stood in the Bremen Standesamt to talk about his son. The pride, the joy, the relief for the safe delivery of his wife.

It’s impossible to imagine how he felt just a little more than five weeks later when he stood there again, on the 11th of January 1864.

All the lost dreams, all the lost hopes, all the pain that he and his wife had to feel that day when he had to get those words out.

The words reporting the death of his first-born son.3

No, there’s nothing in the paper that records what he was thinking. No precise words that reflect the despair.

But there are hints in that record of just how bad that death had been.

First, it occurred at 4 o’clock in the morning — that deepest dark before dawn, on a cold winter day.

Second, the cause of death was krämpfe — cramps. Think of your five-week-old infant screaming in pain with cramps, dying in your arms, and you can’t do a thing for him.

And third, when that young father had to go and report the death, he didn’t take a neighbor or a co-worker or a friend around his own age with him to verify the death. No, he took someone who stood witness to that death much more personally: Johann Heinrich Hüneke, his wife’s father, the baby’s grandfather, went with him to tell the registrar of the loss — and signed the report of the baby’s death.4

No, it simply isn’t imaginable.

The pain of a father — and a grandfather.

The pain of a death in Bremen.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A death in Bremen,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 11 Jan 2020).


  1. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister, Geburten (Bremen registry office, civil status registers, births), 1811-1875, Johann Hinrich Smidt, Geburten 1863, Reg. Nr. 2342 (4 Dec 1863); FHL microfilm 1344173. Note that the father’s name is given, alternately, in the various records as Johannes Jacobus and Jacobus Johannes. Six of one… a half-dozen of the other…
  2. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister, Heiraten (marriages), 1811-1875, Jacobus Johannes Smidt and Johanne Henrietta Hüneke, Heiraten 1861, p. 458; FHL microfilm 1344201.
  3. Bremen Standesamt, Zivilstandsregister, Todten (Deaths), Johann Hinrich Smidt, Reg. Nr. 54 (11 Jan 1864); FHL microfilm 1344232.
  4. Ibid.
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