Quick tip: know the witnesses

Understanding who the witnesses in records were can help you find your ancestors. Baptism witnesses were usually chosen from the immediate family, often from siblings of the parents. Witnesses or informants for death records, on the other hand, were often neighbors. Knowing these customs can help you understand who these people were and how they fit into the picture you’re creating about your ancestor.

Baptism in Flanders, 18th century

Baptism in Flanders, 18th century

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Thank you, Yvette, for the opportunity to comment. I am searching for a death certificate for a great-great grandfather who reportedly DIED AT SEA. I have searched all the places you mentioned and more with no results for a particular date of death or where and how to obtain a death certificate, if one is available. Here is the vital information I have on the my ancestor:

    NAME: Hendrik Simmer
    BIRTH DATE: 19 April 1846
    BIRTHPLACE: Harlingen, Friesland, Netherlands
    MARRIAGE DATE: 10 February 1876
    MARRIAGE PLACE: Harlingen, Friesland, Netherlands
    DEATH DATE: Between 1890 and 1902 (determined by children’s marriage information)
    SPOUSE NAME: Aaltje Steenstra
    BIRTH DATE: 16 November 1849
    BIRTHPLACE: Harlingen, Friesland, Netherlands
    DEATH DATE: 26 April 1910
    DEATH PLACE: Haarlem or Amsterdam, Noord Holland, Netherlands (found date of death in the newspaper “Haarlem Dagblad”. She was listed in the short newspaper article as the Weduwe Simmer. Also, the article stated she must have died as a result of a gaslight malfunction. A daughter, R. (Reimke) Simmer was barely alive and she was taken to the hospital, if my translation is correct. I do not have a death record for her, only the newspaper article.

    NOTE: Hendrik Simmer’s occupation was a Seaman (Zeeman) aboard what would be considered a merchant ship today–not a passenger ship. He reportedly “went to sea” at age nine, probably as a cabin boy. Hendrik Simmer and Aaltje Steenstra had eight children. Five of the eight oldest children were all born in Harlingen and the last three children were reportedly all born in Amsterdam. From the youngest children’s birth places, the family apparently moved from Harlingen to Amsterdam or Haarlem around 1885.

    I would be very grateful and appreciative of any help you may give me. Again, thank you again for your time.

    • I have responded to you via email as this will probably involve tracing Hendrik Simmer through population registers to find out where he lived when he died, and then finding the death record there.

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