Finding Ancestors' Death Records
9/27/2009
Fortunately for genealogists, the grim reaper leaves a paper trail. Here's how to find facts about your dearly departed ancestors using death certificates, funeral home records and obituaries.

Officially dead: death certificates
DeathDeath certificates are the official documents that record people's deaths. Like most records, they weren't created and kept for genealogists who would one day want to learn about their family history. Death certificates were created for statistical purposes and to determine the frequency and distribution of fatal diseases. Statewide death registration is fairly recent; that is, many states did not have mandatory reporting of deaths until the early 20th century (see a list of states' death registration dates).

Thomas J. Kemp's International Vital Records Handbook (Genealogical Publishing Co., $34.95) tells when death and other vital registration began in each state. The book also provides forms, and lists fees for obtaining records and Web sites for each state's vital records office. Or see the National Center for Health Statistics' Where to Write for Vital Records, available on the Web at www.cdc.gov/nchs/howto/w2w/w2welcom.htm. You'll also find state-by-state listings at www.vitalrec.com. Many states now post ordering procedures and fees to obtain vital records on the Internet; some also include indexes. Keep in mind that some states have privacy restrictions on obtaining vital records, or you must prove you are a descendant.

The more recent the death certificate, the more information it's likely to contain, although keep in mind that errors in information do occur. Typically, modern death certificates give the following details: place of death, conditions contributing to the death, name of the deceased; personal and statistical particulars (sex; race; marital status; name of spouse; date and place of birth; age in years, months and days; occupation; parents' names and birth places); medical aspects of death (date of death, how long the physician attended the deceased, time of death, cause of death, duration of illness or disease, contributing factors, whether or not an autopsy was performed, signature of attending physician); name and address of the informant and sometimes the relationship to the deceased; place of burial, cremation or removal; date of burial; and name and address of the undertaker or funeral home. Death certificates might also contain a Social Security number; the length of time the deceased resided in the United States and in that particular community; and whether the person was a war veteran or in the military.

While death certificates are what genealogists call a primary source—that is, a record created at the time of the event—the information on the certificate contains both firsthand and secondhand knowledge. The firsthand knowledge is the information the physician or his attendant provided about the cause of death, date of death and contributing factors. Understand, however, that even this information can be in error. The cause of death can be obscured or covered up on a death certificate to protect a person's reputation and privacy; for example, instead of "suicide" you might find the cause of death as "accidental."

Given 19th-century medical knowledge, the cause of death could be totally erroneous based on what we know today about diseases. The diagnosis was not supported by any kinds of tests, such as X-rays, blood tests or microscopic examinations of tissues. It was based on signs and symptoms only, and many diseases have similar symptoms. It's difficult, if not impossible sometimes, to determine a modern equivalent to a 19th-century cause of death.

The "informant" on a death certificate is the person who provided secondhand information about the deceased, such as date and place of birth, parents' names and birth places. Your research will reveal the relationship of the informant to the deceased, if the death certificate doesn't give that information. The informant related details about the deceased from what other family members or the deceased told him or her, so you can't be certain of its accuracy without confirming the information in other records. Remember, the informant may not be thinking clearly due to grief; informants have been known to accidentally give their own mother's maiden names, for example, instead of the deceased's. On the other hand, if the informant happened to be the family genealogist, this information could be more reliable than anything else on the record.

Some towns, cities and counties kept death registers, which might predate statewide registration or were the basis for reporting to the state. Prior to statewide registration, reporting a death might not have been mandatory, so you could find some of your ancestors recorded and not others. Some of these registers may be quite detailed, others may simply give the name of the deceased and the date of death. Others might also be accompanied by a permit for burial or removal.

Virginia, for example, began statewide vital registration of deaths in 1912, but you can find county death registers from as early as 1853, some of which also include slave deaths. These are on microfilm at the Family History Library (FHL) www.familysearch.org, so you can borrow them through your local Family History Center.