Gone But Not Forgotten: Researching Death Records

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

Death is a daily part of a genealogist’s life. We squeal with delight when a death certificate we’ve ordered for an ancestor arrives in our mailbox, and can’t wait to share our excitement with family members. We get goose bumps if an ancestor had a particularly unusual demise, which might in turn have created more records such as newspaper accounts and coroner’s inquests. Telling a genealogy buddy that you’ve just “killed off Cousin Sam’s mother” is part of normal conversation.

But you won’t need Dr. Quincy or the CSI team to help you find these three basic records of death for your ancestors: death certificates, funeral home records and obituaries. Here’s how to start digging them up and using them.

Officially dead: death certificates

Death 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.

Thomas J. Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook (Genealogical Publishing Co.) 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 <>. You’ll also find state-by-state listings at <>. 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) <>, so you can borrow them through your local Family History Center.

Finishing touches: funeral home records

While most funeral homes have no problem accommodating genealogists in their requests for ancestors’ records, keep in mind that funeral home records are private records, and the funeral home is within its rights to restrict or deny access. Because these are private records, their content varies from one funeral home to another and from one time period to another. Some records are greatly detailed, giving not only similar information to what you’ll find on a death certificate, but also names of all immediate family members and the costs of the funeral, right down to the slippers the deceased was buried in.

Three reference guides will help you locate funeral homes: American Blue Book of Funeral Directors (published every even-numbered year), The National Yellow Book of Funeral Directors (published annually) and The Red Book (National Directory of Morticians, published annually). One of these directories should be available in your public library’s reference section; if not, your local funeral home should have a directory. Or go online to <> and type in the locality where your ancestors died to find a funeral home in the area.

If the records you seek are for a funeral home that no longer exists, check for the records in these places: active funeral homes, the local or state historical society, the local public library, or on microfilm or abstracted at the FHL.

In print: obituaries & death notices

For the locality where your ancestor lived and died (which may be two different places), check newspapers for an obituary or death notice. Death notices are fairly straightforward, giving the name of the deceased, usually the date of death, where the service will be held, and possibly the place of burial. Here is a typical notice from The Sunday Republican in St. Louis, April 15, 1855:

Note the last line about newspapers in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Zanesville to please copy the death notice in their newspapers. This is an important clue that tells you there must be other family and friends of the deceased in these cities. If you weren’t certain where your ancestor originated or where other relatives might reside, this is your lead. Not all death notices carry this tag line, however.

Obituaries give more detail than death notices, and are a news item usually written by the newspaper staff from information provided by the funeral home. Some 19th-century obituaries recorded mostly aspects of a person’s character and were considered a eulogy to the deceased, such as the following excerpt from an uncited clipping:

Others were more like mini-biographies, containing all sorts of family history information.

Recent immigrants might place obituaries in foreign-language newspapers instead of American, English-language newspapers. The drawback is that most foreign-language papers aren’t indexed, even for vital information, so you’ll need to narrow the date of death to within a short time frame for easier searching. The Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, 826 Berry St., St. Paul, MN 55114, <>, has the best collection of foreign and ethnic newspapers. Many of the newspapers on microfilm at this facility may be obtained through interlibrary loan.

The cause of death might or might not appear in the obituary, but for the latter part of the 20th century and for today’s obituaries, you may get a clue to the cause of death by looking at where the family requested donations be sent. Watch for the words “died suddenly,” which might indicate an accidental death, suicide or murder — or it could simply mean a heart attack or a stroke. The words “lingering” or “long illness” could suggest heart disease, tuberculosis or cancer.

Those who might not ordinarily be featured on the front page of the newspaper could end up there because they died in an unusual way. If you have a family story of someone dying in an accident or unusual death, also look for an article. John Norris, for example, didn’t do anything particularly newsworthy in life, but in death he made the front page, much to the chagrin of his relatives. He died from exposure, and by the time relatives discovered his body in the one-room shack he lived in, his dogs had begun eating away at his face.

Also watch for personal and local news items at least a week to a month before and a week after the death for relatives coming to the person’s deathbed or for the funeral. By collecting obituaries and news items on all siblings of your ancestor, you might be able to piece together three or four generations of a family.

To start tracking down your ancestors’ obituaries, see if your library has Obituaries: A Guide to Sources, 2nd edition, by Betty M. Jarboe, a bibliography of books and articles that index or abstract obituaries and death notices from newspapers and periodicals. It also includes references to annuals and yearbooks that contain necrologies, as well as transcripts of published cemetery records and tombstones. This guide is arranged geographically, but as the compiler points out in the introduction, this work does not contain everything published, and it was published in 1989, so sources after that date would not be included. Nonetheless, it’s a good starting point.

To find newspapers, go to the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, which you can find in most libraries’ reference section. It’s arranged by state, then towns and cities. This will tell you when the newspaper was established and the address where to write. If the newspaper is out of print, try Clarence Brigham’s A History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, and Winifred Gregory’s American Newspapers, 1821-1936. Also look for the Library of Congress publication, Newspapers in Microform.

Many newspapers have been microfilmed, and the films are usually kept at local libraries and historical societies. Volunteers at these facilities sometimes index vital events, such as births, marriages and deaths, onto cards or by computer. Sometimes the library or historical society will interlibrary loan the microfilmed copies of the newspapers, so you can view them at your own library. If not, you can always write to the repository and ask if its newspaper has been indexed and request a search.

Some metropolitan newspapers have published their own indexes, such as the New York Times. While you might not think your ancestor living in Kansas would do anything worthwhile enough to justify a death notice or obituary in the New York Times, you just never know. Many people can claim a distant relative who was newsworthy.

There are three types of indexes for the New York Times:

• New York Times Annual Index is widely available in large public and academic libraries. This index begins in 1851 and covers articles by subject, so, for example, you would look under “deaths” to see if an obituary appeared for your ancestor or a relative. You can also identify the date of national events, then search other, unindexed newspapers.

• New York Times Obituary Index covers 1858 to 1968, with a supplement covering 1969 to 1978. This is an index to obituaries only, not death notices. The Obituary Index was compiled from the Annual Index and covers those names and obituaries that appeared under the heading “Deaths” in the Annual Index. It lists mostly prominent people, but has more than 390,000 entries. For recent death notices, since about 1997, check the New York Times online at <>.

• The Personal Name Index to the New York Times Index covers 1851 to 1974, with supplements covering 1975 to 1996. This index covers only names from the Annual Index, and references the pages in the Annual Index. Keep in mind that not every name in the Times was indexed — only those within the headlines, not names within articles.

In short, check all three indexes and look under names and subjects. For more on finding and using newspapers, see the October 2001 Family Tree Magazine (highlights are online at <>).

While genealogists do thrive on death-related records for their ancestors, they also mourn for them. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings more than finding a record of a child’s death and sympathizing with the parents’ loss and grief. So although we may have a macabre fascination with our ancestors’ demise and may lightly refer to their deaths, we also pause to remember — and record — their lives.

From the August 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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