Q. My great-grandfather’s 1939 South Carolina death certificate lists “code 946” as a cause of death. A state official told me the key to these codes is lost. How can I find out why my relative died?
A. It’s possible to learn your ancestor’s cause of death without that code, or even if no death certificate exists. First, check his local newspaper for an obituary or death notice, which could’ve been published up to several weeks after he died. The library or historical society in his town may have an obituary lookup service. See <www.state.sc.us/scsl/colibs1.html> for South Carolina libraries’ contact information. In other states, use <www.publiclibraries.com>. For rural relatives, try libraries in nearby towns, especially county seats.
You might find an obituary in places where the ancestor previously lived or where relatives lived at his time of death. One of my ancestors lived and died in Charleston, SC, but her obituary was published in New Orleans, where her son lived. You’ll find some obituaries on USGenWeb sites, accessible from <usgenweb.org/states>, and on sites listed at <cyndislist.com/obits.htm>.
Family letters and documents also may provide cause-of-death clues. Ask relatives, even if they were children when your ancestor died. Local historians and elders are good sources, too. If your ancestor belonged to a religious, social, fraternal or business organization, its records or newsletter may mention his death. Did any current members know him? Many such groups have Web sites with contact details.