Friday, May 27, 2011

The Gretna Green for Death? Why Y

Records say the darnedest things

We depend upon records to reveal the “truth” about our pasts.

Yet sometimes records have anomalies.
Some are amusing or humorous.
Some are interesting or weird.
Some are peculiar or suspicious.
Some are infuriating, even downright laughable.

Yes, “Records Say the Darnedest Things.”

Records Say the Darnedest Things

A place where people often go to get married is called a “Gretna Green.” A Gretna Green has far more marriages than is normal. Did you know there is a “Gretna Green,” a sort of elephant graveyard, for death?

This table shows the number of deaths found in Public Member Trees for four places. The table compares numbers of deaths with current populations.

  Deaths Population
Y 6 million 86
London 4 million 8 million
Los Angeles 3 million 4 million
Paris 1 million 2 million


What is this mysterious Y where so many people go to die?

Of course, every good genealogist knows that place names need to be complete so they aren’t ambiguous. Gratefully, some very helpful genealogy programs will expand the names for you, “fixing” the problem. Consider this descendent of a Norse god.

Before After
Born: Europe
Died: Y
Born: Europe, Fayette, Georgia, United States
Died: Y, Somme, Picardie, France


Deaths in Y are not limited to the descendents of Norse gods. Consider an early resident of Asia.

Before After
Born: Asia
Died: Y
Born: Āsīā, Ghowr, Afghanistan
Died: Y, Somme, Picardie, France


Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, died in Y, as have people from across the globe.

Fortunately, genealogists are the questioning type. Confronted with inexplicable deaths in Y, they start questioning why:

  • “I have found that a number of my ancestors died in this small French village and I'm trying to find out more information about it aside from what's in Wikipedia. Why did so many end up there? The span goes from the 1100s-1800s and there are many surnames.”
  • “Very strange to find we're all having this issue. Mine's not even telling me a date when they died, just that it was there.”
  • “I've found that around 20 of my ancestors ranging from 1100 to about 1850 died in Y, Somme, Picardie. I know that it was held as a fief by the English, from around the mid 1200s to the mid 1300s, which may explain why so many English went there.”
  • “Mine, Too! All my McGhee women in the early to mid-1800's moved from Pittsylvnia/Bedford area, VA. to this town in france. WHY???”
  • “Now that [I] read all these notes from others, I am beginning to wonder if, perhaps, it was a "spa" or infirmary of some sort, where people went, who were seriously ill. It seems that everyone who went there, died there!?? Was their something going around in the mid-1800's in Virginia? My relatives were all women, English, born in VA. 1790-1830”
  • “I also have a relative [that] someone on a family tree has listed as dying in Y, Somme, Picardie, France. I have not yet proved this to be true by finding a death certificate. Does anyone know how to find death certificates or registers for this area. Will they be written in French?”
  • “And I thought it was just me who was crazy. Perhaps there was a foreign office to which members of my family were assigned during the 1700's, as they reappeared in NY a couple generations later. Or maybe it was just a great place to escape then, as it is now.”
  • “I think it was a sanitarium for consumption patients. That is what they called Tuberculosis, back then. That is consistant with Lincoln's son's diagnosis, as well.”
  • “I have come across a few different sources that show this as the location of vast military cemeteries going back ages - I don't know if this accounts for all of the hits we're getting, but certainly applies to some/most ...”

(You’ll be happy to know that this discussion gradually wound around to the real problem.)

Yes, records say the darnedest things…


Thank you, Desta Elliott, for suggesting this topic.


  1. I've seen that place of death before for men who died around 1918. I figured they died in WWI, but I couldn't find them in any of the war casualty rolls, military cemeteries, etc. Now I know why (no pun intended).

  2. OK, I'll admit I'm not the sharpest tack in the box ... What in the world IS the discussion and what is the answer? (And, yes, I know about Ypres, and WWI, etc. Is THAT the "answer" along with the "Y" meaning "why"? Sorry, I'm hot and cranky right now and in need of a cool answer.)

  3. Isn't the "Y" just a misplaced abbreviation for "Yes" in the PLACE field instead of a DATE field? That's why nobody dies in "N".... or do they?

  4. That is funny! Obviously, the "Y" is "Yes" when confronted with the question "Dead?" in some genealogy software. This is one of many reasons that (1) the GEDCOM format needs to be updated [thanks to the BetterGEDCOM crew for working on this!] and (2) you should never import information from other trees.

  5. Michael - GEDCOM is actually innocent here. If software wants to indicate someone is dead, but has no date or place, then GEDCOM 5.5. says to put "Y" next to the DEAT tag. So either people are misusing the location for the death by sticking "Y" or "YES" into it themselves, or the software's misusing the location in a similar fashion. Either way, and not for the first time, it turns out that GEDCOM is innocent. Depending on where the issue arises, it might even be that Ancestry is innocent, though if they are, they're certainly naive to accept such data.

    Actually I did find a lot of the postings on that thread depressing. If you get weird answers from primary sources, it makes sense to believe it until proven otherwise. But weird answers from other people's trees ought to be discarded straight away - yet I saw several people repeating that "Y" was a real place in France, as if that true fact validated the tree data.

  6. A few years ago I put together a little blog explaining why "Y, Somme, Picardie, France" was listed on family trees as the "Place of Death" for so many people who couldn't possibly have died there. The theories about how so many people managed to traveled there to die are really hilarious.

    Check out the blog for the scoop.

    In a nutshell, NO, it's absolutely NOT "Gretna Green for Death"! LOL. Nor is it a software glitch or any kind of mystery at all.

    It's 100% human error caused by amateur genealogists carelessly accepting that "Y, Picardie" drop-down suggestion after entering "Y" in the "Place of Death" field as in "Yes, my ancestor died at some point".

  7. This is a software glitch, and Ancestry should fix it. Somehow the Y is associated with this France place. Lazy Ancestry for not fixing this issue, don't blame it on the user!

    1. It's actually NOT "a software glitch" at all. It's 100% human error, caused by a suggestion accepted without thought or notice.

  8. There is a town called Y in France and it assumes that's what you mean. Silly.

  9. Nathan St. John, born 1692, Connecticut, married Hannah Seymour 1721 in Connecticut,
    DIED 22 August 1768 in Y, SOMME, PICARDIE, FRANCE.

    Let's erase the "Y" and that leaves Somme, Picardie, France. Why were Americans in Somme in 1760ish?

  10. Susan,

    Read the previous comments for the answer. In a nutshell, a technical genealogy standard specified "Y" (as an abbreviation for Yes") to indicate that a person was deceased. Some errant genealogy programs interpreted that as a place name. Some genealogy programs can automatically complete incomplete place names. Since "Y" is an actual place in Somme, the program expands it into a place that was never intended.

  11. I found one at last. Born in Canada and died in France at age 92. I don't think so. Or if you look at other trees, he died at -8 years old. What happened to integrity?


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