When my husband and I were house-hunting awhile back, we looked at a house adjoining a small pioneer cemetery nearly concealed by trees. Which I thought was cool—you could see the area’s history in the names on the worn stones. My husband said, “Quiet neighbors.”
But a few friends looked stricken and said they might have to think twice about coming over.
So it goes for many of us genealogists. We’re fascinated by cemeteries and death records; other people think that’s creepy. But in the spirit of genealogy and Halloween, here are some tips on finding your ancestors’ death records:
- Death records are generally available after the state passed a law that counties or towns had to keep records and forward them to the state health department or vital records office. To find out when that was for your ancestor’s state, download our free US Vital Records Chart (PDF document) from here. Compliance with the law wasn’t always 100 percent, so keep that in mind.
You can get websites and contact information for state vital records offices from the Centers for Disease Control Where to Wrote for Vital Records listing.
- Restrictions on public access to death records are generally shorter than those for birth records—depending on the state, it’s usually 25 to 50 years if you’re not immediate family. Check the state vital records office website for this information.
- If your ancestor died before statewide vital recordkeeping began, there still may be a record. Many counties, cities and towns started keeping death records before the state said they had to. For example, Ohio death records don’t officially begin until 1908, but the city of Cincinnati started keeping records about 1865 (yay for me!), and they’re online here. With some gaps, St. Louis began registering deaths in 1850. They’re in the Missouri Birth and Death records, Pre-1910 database at Missouri Digital Heritage. The database gives you a microfilm number for the image of the register at the Missouri State Archives; and the registers also are digitized on subscription site Ancestry.com.
The town or county health department or a local genealogical society where your ancestor lived can tell you when death recording began there. Remember that these early records often aren’t complete.
- To find online death indexes or record collections, search online for the county, city, town or state name and death index or death record. The free FamilySearch.org has indexes to death information from a variety of sources for most states; also search the catalog at Ancestry.com. If you find your ancestor in an index, check the site to see how you can get the original record.
- No official death record to be found? Look to other sources, such as newspaper obituaries and death notices, cemeteries, church records, US census mortality schedules and probate records.
Learn more about tracking down death information for your ancestors from these Family Tree Magazine expert resources:
- Getting Creative With Death Records video class: Learn how to go beyond the obvious sources to find the information you need on when your ancestor died.
- Family Tree University First Steps: Using Death Records course (You can register for the current session until Friday, Nov. 2; the next session starts Nov. 26.)
- Step-by-step guide to cemetery research article download