Anatomy of a record in the Civil Registry

After the introduction of the Civil Registry in our country by the French Republic (in 29 Prairial year IV, or 17 juni 1796), it became compulsory for each municipality to keep a record of all births, deaths, and marriages that took place under its jurisdiction. Before that date, only the Church kept records, but these were of baptisms (not births), marriages, and burials (not deaths). In the beginning, entries in the Civil Registry did not have a fixed structure and were made in one, or in three separate registers. Later, printed forms became available, removing the necessity of having to enter the same phrases over and over again. This resulted in records with a common layout and contents, making it easier to find information more quickly, but also making them more understandable to foreign administrations.

Below, we analyse the structure of the civil registry using hand-written records as an example.

Elements that are common to all records

In general, a record in the civil registry may consist of up to four parts. Not all these parts are necessarily present. They are

  • A title, heading or opening section.
  • The body of the record, the contents of which will vary depending on whether it is reporting a birth, a marriage, or a pass away.
  • A final or closing section.
  • Notes or amendments on information that was unknown when the record was entered in the Registry. These were usually made in the margin, next to the main text. A typical example is the recognition of a child, born from an unmarried mother, after the marriage between the two parents has taken place. Another could be the date of the death of a person entered next to his/her birth record or marriage record.

In the examples shown below, the header is enclosed by a green box. Typically it contains the following items:

  • The type of record (birth, marriage or death).
  • The municipality or city where the event was recorded. Sometimes also the district or the province.
  • The date and the time when the record was entered.
  • The name and the capacity of the official making the entry. Sometimes this information appears in the closing section.

The closing section, shown in blue below, may contain:

  • A statement on the legal procedures followed, e.g. that the document was read aloud before it was signed.
  • Name, occupation, age, and place of residence of the witnesses.
  • Name and capacity of the official, if not mentioned earlier.
  • A statement that one or more of the concerned declares to be illiterate, and hence is unable to sign.
  • the signature(s) of all concerned, including witnesses and official.

The body part of the record is shown in red.

Birth record

The main part of a birth record contains :

  • The declarants, their profession, age and place of residence.
  • Name and surname of the father, if not one of the declarants (Married couples only. If the couple is not married, the name of the father is not mentioned).
  • The name of the mother. Sometimes her occupation and age is also mentioned.
  • The date and time of the birth. Sometimes also the address where the birth took place.
  • The gender and first name(s) of the child. If the mother is not married, the child adopt the surname of the mother, which is added after the surname(s).

Here is the text of the record, together with an English translation.

Marriage record

The major part of a marriage record contains :

  • Name, surname, age, profession and place of residence of both partners.
  • Name, surname, age, profession and place of residence of the parents. If one or both of the parents passed away, the place and often the date of death is given. Sometimes, the same information if given for the grandparents. This part is indicated in the yellow box on the picture below.
  • An inventory of any supporting documents deposited, e.g. a written permission of the parents if they are absent and either groom or bride is under aged, copies of birth certificates, death certificates of the parents, a statement about the military service of the groom, etc.
  • The dates of publication of banns, and the observation that no objections were raised against the proposed marriage (see the purple box).
  • Extracts from the Civil Code that were communicated to the pair and their consent to proceed with the marriage.
  • Finally, a statement that the marriage was executed (green box).
  • If applicable, an earlier illegitimate child may be recognised.
Here is the text of the record, together with an English translation.


Death record

The major part of a death certificate contains :

  • The declarants, their age, profession, and place of residence (see the yellow box below).
  • Name, surname, age, profession, and place of residence of the deceased.
  • Date, time, and place of the death.
  • The place of birth of the deceased. If known, the date. Otherwise, the (approximate) age.
  • The names of the parents and their profession(s). If one or both are deceased, the place of death is often mentioned.
  • If applicable, the name and surname of the (previous) partner(s).

This information is indicated by the red box on the picture below.

Here is the text of the record, together with an English translation.