July 25th, 2009

Apart from being loons, it seems birthers like Lou Dobbs don’t understand what a birth certificate is. They think of it as a precious, unique document like a will, indenture or contract that is given you at birth. If they knew the truth, they’d be even more upset, so let’s give it a try.

There are no original birth, death, and marriage certificates in the birther sense. The originals are entries in master registers, kept by the government under lock and key, and you can’t see them. You have the right to ask politely at any time for any number of certified copies of all or part of your entries, and in the USA and UK of other people’s, but no duty to ask for any. In Britain genealogists complain they can’t even see 172-year-old original registers for 1837 when civil registration replaced the earlier parish registers. If this sounds a bit Orwellian, it’s because that’s exactly where it comes from: compulsory registration is an exercise of coercive state power, and its creation marks the beginnings of the surveillance state 500 years ago.

The pioneers of this intrusive and systematic instrument of State and Church control were the lovable Cardinal Jimenez de Cisneros, later Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who introduced baptismal registers in 1497 in his province of Toledo. He was so proud of his invention that he campaigned for the system to be adopted all over Catholicism. He was followed by the equally cuddly Protestant statist Thomas Cromwell, who introduced compulsory registration of baptism, marriages and funerals by all parish priests in England and Wales in 1538, after the suppression of the Catholic rising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Cromwell’s scheme was maintained and tightened by Henry VIII’s children – down to keeping the registers under triple key security, one more than for the launch codes in US missile control bunkers. The purpose, for Catholic and Protestant rulers alike was to monitor and control sexual and religious deviants of whatever stripe. Any benefits to the subject, like proofs of descent, age or nationality, were entirely accidental. SFIK there was no system of standard certificates in England before 1837.

George III and Louis XVI were decent duffers stigmatised as tyrants by revolutionary propagandists, cheapening the insult. Ferdinand and Henry were the frightening real deal. Birthers, Rex magnus vigilat omnes.


I’ve a small campaign on these certificates of my own: not on births but deaths.

Pretty much everywhere, you can get a short form of birth certificate that doesn’t give the names of both parents. For 99 official uses out of a hundred, proof of date and place of birth is all that’s needed. Most jurisdictions have followed the same logic for death certificates, including Scotland; but not England and Wales, where the primary and contributing causes of death are always given, in concise medical language.

After my wife Pat died, I had to send copies of her death certificate to three lawyers, four banks, my former employer, and the UK government pensions department. My lawyers may have had to send more copies to four utilities, one general insurance company, and three fund managers. That makes a minimum of 9 and a maximum of 17 copies in circulation. Working through this drudgery, I asked myself: what legitimate interest have any of these interlocutors in knowing the cause, as well as the fact, of her death?

True, life insurance companies write policies with exclusions for suicide, war and dangerous sports, so they may need details, but this was irrelevant in her case. And people die of causes far more embarrassing than cancer: suicide, drug overdose, AIDS, syphilis, auto-erotic strangulation. It’s fair enough to record these for epidemiology and law enforcement, the question is publicity. I think the dead like Pat, and their survivors like me, are entitled to a little decent privacy.

So I wrote to the Registrar-General of Births and Deaths for England and Wales asking why there isn’t a short form of death certificate, as there is in Scotland and most of Europe. To my surprise the No.2 wrote back agreeing with me, but alas, &c:

Death certificate HMG letter.jpg

This broken-wing defence is somewhat disarming. Poor helpless British Government, unable in five years to get a simple technical reform through a Parliament whose agenda it completely controls! To get any action, I will have to find a sympathetic MP to ask a parliamentary question.

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