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Letters from the dead

I meet and get to know dead people by digging around my family tree and in the archives. Today I’m getting to know Julie Wilhelmina Scherius, my great-grandmother.

On the table in front of me I have the foolscap file compiled by her husband, Jan Peelen. I read the large label stuck on the front cover. In his calligraphic handwriting it says “Brieven van Overledenen” - Letters from the dead. Above that is taped a yellow sticky note with different handwriting, it looks like my aunt’s, which says “Letters of condolence written to Jan Peelen, our grandfather on the loss of his first wife Julie Scherius in December 1903.” She was just forty-three years old.

I’m eager to read these letters but try to follow best practise and don cotton gloves to minimise contact of damaging acids from my fingers. The letters are actually in remarkably good condition. It is awkward and clumsy and soon enough I give up with the gloves.

She emerges first in the platitudes - a good wife and mother, greatly mi…