Genealogists usually start their research with a death record, then move back in time. But death record research can be challenging for a number of reasons. For many of us, relatives died before statewide vital record-keeping. Others of us must deal with oddly-recorded names.
However, if you can’t find a death certificate for a relative, there are solutions. Look for other death records for the time and place he died. Even if you’ve found one death record, look for others. After all, different types of records might have different details, and they provide additional documentation that you have the right death date and place.
You’ll learn how to find several types of death records and their substitutes in Family Tree University’s workshop, Dig into Your Ancestor’s Death Records.
Start with these nine kinds of old death records (including examples I’ve found in my research):
State Death Certificate
Once statewide death recording began (in the early 1900s for most states), counties created standard-format death certificates and sent copies to the state vital records office. Our free downloadable Vital Records Chart lists when these official death certificates began for each state. You can order them from county and state vital record offices, possibly with privacy restrictions (such as proving a relationship to the deceased) if the death was less than 25 or 50 years ago.
Local Death Record
You’re not necessarily out of luck if your ancestor died before statewide death records. Many cities and towns issued their own death certificates, which varied in format. They may be available microfilmed or digitized via a local library or archive, the state archive, or online at a genealogy website such as FamilySearch or Ancestry.com.
Local jurisdictions may have recorded deaths in a table form, such as this register with the death date, cause and place, along with the deceased’s name, age, birthplace, parents’ names and address (all if known). The columns span two pages. Look for death registers in the same places as local death records.
Substitute Death Records
Before statewide vital records begin, death recording can be hit or miss. Luckily, many types of records can substitute for death records, providing similar information. That includes:
- the cemetery record
- the census mortality schedule
- the church death record
In addition, you should search for the probate file, obituary, and the burial permit. There are even more records, of course. I haven’t even touched on indexes to all these records.