Clues in death records
Nonetheless, particularly from more recent years, a death certificate can deliver a wealth of information.
The names you find in a death record can of course lead you to other relatives, and perhaps even push back your genealogical search by a generation (pending confirmation from primary sources). The name of the informant could also be exactly the clue you need to solve a maiden-name mystery.
Death record coverage
Today we think of every death as being carefully scrutinized and recorded. Even if a deceased person doesn’t undergo the sort of medical examination common on TV shows such as “CSI:” or “Bones,” at least a funeral home is involved and a sheaf of paperwork generated. People in 21st-century America who leave this world are just as well-documented as when they arrive in it or get married.
Accessing death records
The original repository for most death records was an office, such as the health department or vital records office, in the county where the death occurred. Depending on the date of the record, you might get a copy there, or hit up another repository.
- State and county offices: Generally, you’ll request copies of death records created after statewide death registration began from state vital records offices or health departments. You can find these offices’ websites with a web search (Ohio death certificates or Ohio vital records, for example). Or consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of links to state vital records offices. County or city offices covering the place where the death occurred also may provide access to death records, and they may have fewer access restrictions and lower fees.
They’ll also likely have any records kept before statewide death records began. Check the department of health website for the locality where the death took place for details. Whether you request from the county or the state, follow the site’s instructions for submitting your order. You may have to print a form to drop in the mail with a check, or submit an online form with a credit card number. Fees generally range from $6 to $15. Usually, you’ll have to provide at least the deceased’s name at death and the date and place of death. If you know the death certificate number, supply that as well. You can order the same records available at state vital records offices through third-party businesses such as VitalChek (in some states, this is your only option).
Such businesses often provide faster service, but usually for a higher fee. Early death certificates may have been transferred to a state or county archive, library or historical society. The health department or vital records office website should inform you if this is the case, or you can consult local genealogy guides.
- Online: A handful of states and localities provide online access to digitized death records for at least some span of years. Arizona offers a searchable index covering 1844 to 1962, linked to PDFs of the originals. Nearly a million Michigan death certificates from 1897 to 1920 are digitized (click Advanced Search). You can find digitized Cincinnati death (and birth) records from 1865 to 1910—predating Ohio statewide vital recordkeeping—on the University of Cincinnati Libraries website.
You might find your ancestor in a death index, compiled by someone who looked through death records and extracted names, death dates and other pertinent details. Use this data to request the actual record. The index may have a link to order the record from the holding agency. If not, examine the site for information on the source of the records and directions for ordering a copy or finding it on microfilm.
The Massachusetts state archives, for example, indexes deaths from 1841 to 1910 and tells you how to request records. Death records or indexes are increasingly available online at FamilySearch. Scroll down and click United States. Click the state on the left. Look for a death records title on the list in the center of the screen. Some of the collections are still being added to, and not all are indexed. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI), also on FamilySearch, is a quick way to find the death date and place of ancestors recent enough to have Social Security numbers. Most of the deaths listed occur after 1962, the year the database was computerized.
To find these record collections and indexes, run a Google search on the city, county or state, death records and genealogy. Also check websites of the state archives and the state and local genealogical society. Search online for books containing death indexes, too.
Most subscription genealogy sites have death records and indexes, most notably World Vital Records and Ancestry.com. Search these sites’ list of databases by place and then scroll to see whether death records are available. Especially for New England ancestors, the American Ancestors subscription site from the New England Historic Genealogical Society may have local death records unavailable elsewhere online.
- Microfilm: The Family History Library has microfilmed death records and indexes for locations across the country. Search the FHL online catalog for the place your ancestor may have died, then scroll through the results for death records. You can borrow these through your local FamilySearch Center. State archives and local libraries also may have microfilmed death records you can borrow through interlibrary loan.
Death record substitutes
If your search for official death records fails, or you need to supplement skimpy information in what you’ve found, other resources can help. Of course, there are cemetery and tombstone records, which you can read about in an upcoming Workbook. But don’t overlook funeral home, newspaper, church and even census records:
- Funeral: The information in these records may include names of family members, details of the funeral service and even the cost of burial. You may be able to identify the funeral home from the death certificate, newspaper obituary, cemetery records or family papers. A funeral home that nearby relatives used is a likely bet, or you can check city directories of the time for funeral homes near where the family lived. Then you can try to locate the funeral home today (or its successor), either through a web search or directory websites such as Funeral Homes, Funeral Home Directory or US Funerals.
A printed directory to US funeral homes, which your library or a cooperative local funeral director may have, is The American Blue Book of Funeral Directors (Kates-Boylston). Historical societies and libraries in your ancestor’s hometown also might help you track down funeral homes, especially those that’ve been absorbed by other homes. When contacting a funeral home, remember that it’s a private business. While funeral homes are often helpful to genealogists, they are under no obligation to be. You may be asked to demonstrate your connection to the deceased.
- Newspaper: The local newspaper may have recorded your ancestor’s passing in the form of a death notice listing just the basic facts, or an obituary with details about his life and family. The proliferation of online digitized newspapers can help you find these. Try Ancestry.com and its sibling site Newspapers.com, both of which require a subscription; subscription site GenealogyBank, which also has a database of recent newspaper obituaries; subscription site Archives.com; and the free Chronicling America site from the Library of Congress.
Several states have online newspaper collections, including Colorado, Georgia, Washington and others. Ask your library if it subscribes to ProQuest Obituaries, a service that offers more than 10.5 million obituaries from newspapers dating back to 1851. Newspaper Obituaries on the Net is a collection of links to other websites. And the USGenWeb Obituary Project provides transcriptions of public domain obituary indexes and transcriptions, organized by state and county. In addition, check archives, historical societies and libraries in the area where your ancestor lived for indexes to obituaries and death notices, such as those of Alaska Libraries, Archives and Museums and the Wisconsin Historical Society. You can also use an online search engine such as Google or Bing to look for ancestors’ obituaries. Try searching for a name plus obituary; include a place if the deceased’s name is common.
- Church records: Many churches recorded the deaths of their members in funeral registers. Your research strategy for these records varies by the religion. Your best bet is to contact the place of worship your ancestor attended. If it no longer exists, contact the parish that absorbed it or a regional office for the faith. You also might find church records microfilmed through the Family History Library: Run a place search of the FamilySearch online catalog and look for a church records heading.
- Coroner records: Deaths occurring by accident or under suspicious circumstances may have been subject to a coroner’s investigation. The death certificate and newspaper articles may indicate such a death. Coroner records may be at the county morgue, historical society or state archives. Old coroner records are online, at least in index form, for a few areas, such as San Francisco, St. Louis and Summit County, Ohio. Look for these on FamilySearch microfilm, too.
- Census mortality schedules: US census mortality schedules for 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 name those who died in the 12 months prior to the census date (June 1) for these censuses. Find mortality schedules on Ancestry.com. The 1850 schedule is searchable free on FamilySearch.org.
- Military records: For ancestors who died in military service, search the Nationwide Grave Locator, which lists burials in Veterans Administration National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and veterans buried in private cemeteries with government grave markers furnished after 1997. Also peruse military records and pensions on the subscription site Fold3.