Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards concludes her discussion of three important sources for genealogists: Birth Certificates, Marriage Certificates, and Death Certificates. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England – and has documented and added more than 30,400 people to her family tree!
The three most common primary sources genealogists want are: Birth Certificates, Marriage Certificates, and Death Certificates. This article (along with Part 1) explains what information you can find on each type of certificate, and where to find them.
What Does a Birth Certificate Contain and Where Can I Get a Copy?
Birth certificates vary in appearance from state to state, but there is certain information that must be included on all birth certificates for them to be accepted as official documents by the U.S. government.
The birth certificate must have a person’s date of birth, place of birth, full birth name, the date the certificate was filed, the registrar’s signature and the official seal of the issuing agency.
Birth certificates may also contain the name of the doctor who delivered the individual, the parents’ names, and the mother’s maiden name. The person’s gender and vital statistics, such as birth weight and height, are also commonly included. It can sometimes include either the person’s hand or footprint as well as the mother’s fingerprint.
When a birth certificate is filed, a number is usually assigned to it. The number may be an arbitrary number or an actual reflection of the numerical order in which that birth occurred in that jurisdiction. When an individual applies for a birth record, an official copy is issued.
As of 2014, birth records are a matter of public record, and anyone with the name and birth date of an individual may apply for and obtain a copy of that person’s birth certificate (a fee is typically charged for this service).
Birth certificates in the United States can usually be ordered from the state where your ancestor was born, but some have been found on line because of genealogical information shared by people.
What a Death Certificate Looks Like, and Requesting a Death Certificate for an Ancestor
A death certificate can contain (it varies from state to state and by year):
- Date & Place of Birth or Marriage: Information found in death records can often provide the clue you need to locate a birth or marriage record, as it may supply the date and place of birth or marriage as well as a wife’s and mother’s maiden names.
- Names of Family Members: Death records are often a good source for names of parents, spouses, children and next of kin. The death certificate will usually list at least the next of kin or the informant (often a family member) who provided the information on the death certificate, while an obituary notice may list numerous family members.
- Occupation of the Deceased: What did your ancestor do for a living? Were they a farmer? An ostler? Coal miner? Their choice of occupation probably defined at least a part of who they were as a person. You may choose to just record this in your “interesting tidbits” folder or, possibly, follow up for further research. Certain occupations, such as railroad workers, may have employment, pension or other occupational records available. Many occupations have gone out of usage or may have a similar spelling to another totally different occupation, so be careful in reading this information!
- Possible Military Service: Obituaries, tombstones and, occasionally, death certificates are a good place to look if you suspect that your ancestor may have served in the military. They will often list the military branch and unit, and possibly information on rank and the years in which your ancestor served.
- Cause of Death: An important clue for anyone compiling a medical family history, the cause of death can often be found listed on a death certificate (and if you can’t find it there, then the funeral home – if still in existence – may be able to provide you with further information). If you come across a diagnosis you are unfamiliar with (as many earlier medical terms are no longer used), you can find a number of books and online sites that can tell you more about this diagnosis (it may be good to find out more about what happened, as it may be genetic or the genetic predisposition and may play a significant part in the future of your family if not prevented).
In addition to these five clues, death records also offer information that may lead to further research avenues. A death certificate, for example, may list the burial place and the funeral home, leading to a search in cemetery or funeral home records. An obituary or funeral notice may mention a church where the funeral service is being held, another source for further research. Since about 1967, most death certificates in the United States list the deceased’s Social Security number, which makes it easy to request a copy of the original application (SS-5) for a Social Security card, full of genealogical details.
Take a close look at the death certificate:
- What was the person’s full name?
- What was her maiden name (if a woman)?
- What was the spouse’s name?
- Do you think that the person listed as the informant was a reliable source of the information?
- What was the immediate cause of their death?
- Approximately how long after their illness/surgery did they die?
- How old was the person when they died?
- What was the name of the place where the death occurred?
- Is the cemetery listed where the remains were transported to?
- What other information can you find?
Death certificates can usually be ordered from the state where your ancestor died, but some have been found online because of genealogical information shared by people. Because of identity theft problems, there may be difficulty in retrieving certificates for people born in the last 75 years if you are not a direct descendent, so be prepared for this (if you are not a direct descendant, the request should come from someone who is – so try to have one assist you in this).
As mentioned, some death certificates are available online – but be careful with these “free” death certificates, as they may eventually lead to requests for payment!
The website Death Indexes is one place where a person can view death certificates online for free. To begin, search records by selecting the state in which the death certificate was created. Once a state is chosen, the search engine allows the user to narrow the search field by selecting a county or city in which the death record was filed. Other information available on this website includes obituaries, probate indexes, and burial information for a person.
Marriage Certificates and What They Contain
At minimum, marriage certificates will contain: the woman’s maiden name (although if she was married before, her last name may be from that prior marriage – so be careful in using this information); the man’s full name; the birth dates of both individuals; number of times each was married (it may contain information about any prior marriages and if they ended in divorce or the death of a spouse); and the jurisdiction where they applied for a marriage license (which may or may not be where the ceremony was held to formalize the marriage). Sometimes a marriage certificate will also list the names of the parents of the groom and bride, and the home address for each person.
Marriage certificates can usually be ordered from the state where your ancestor married. Some churches have also kept a copy on record in their files along with the church registration of the wedding.
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