Genealogy 101: #5 Death Certificates

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega discusses how helpful death certificates can be for your family history research, and suggests places where death certificates can be found. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Most likely one of the first family history documents you learned about was a death certificate. In the best of cases a death certificate reports on the death of an ancestor and provides clues to their life. As with any document, it’s important to understand how to find what you need and what it’s telling you.

Photo: death certificate for Kate Chatham
Source for death certificate image: “North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F3WV-H5R: 8 December 2014), Kate Chatham, 22 Feb 1914; citing Henderson, Vance, North Carolina, reference 492, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,877,775.

Why Death Certificates?

Researching your ancestor’s death should be one of the first to-dos on your genealogical checklist. Why? In family history research, always start your research with the most recent event (the ancestor’s death) and work backward through their life. After you find your ancestor’s death date, work on proving their children’s relationship to them, next find the marriage record, then connect your ancestor to their own parents.

Death certificates are relatively more recent documents, depending on where you are researching, so one may not have been produced for your ancestor’s death. But it’s important to gather the ones that are available and analyze the information they provide.

The First Resource, but Not Necessarily the Most Accurate

When you can find one, a death certificate seemingly has all the information you need, from birth date, parental names, death date and place, cause of death, and burial site – to the deceased’s street address, occupation, and marital status. What more could you want? Well, as with everything that seems too good to be true, there’s a caveat.

Death certificates have information that is provided by multiple informants – and some of it might not be entirely accurate. So, for example, a physician might provide the cause of death. A family member or friend might provide information about the deceased such as their occupation, birth date, and their parents’ names.

It’s important to remember that numerous factors can influence the accuracy of the personal information that appears on a death certificate. Family members are understandably upset when they provide the information for the death certificate, or they may not know the correct answers to the questions being asked. Unless the informant is an older family member or a parent, they weren’t there for the birth of the deceased so their answers should be carefully considered. Even in cases where the person gives correct information it can be transcribed incorrectly on the certificate.

Genealogy Tip: Although death certificates can be wonderfully helpful family history documents, cross-check them with other records to verify the information.

Who Has a Death Certificate?

Obtaining a government-issued vital record may seem like an obvious step in documenting your ancestor, but the simple truth is that not everyone’s death is recorded – and if your ancestral line traces back to the early days of our nation, you will come to a point where a vital record will not be an option. We’ll explore vital record alternatives later in this “Introduction to Genealogy” series, but for now – just know that if you are researching someone who died prior to vital record registration, you need to search for an alternative source like a church record or newspaper article (such as an obituary or probate notice).

An article about vital records registration in California, Evening News newspaper article 24 May 1905
Evening News (San Jose, California), 24 May 1905, page 5

It’s important to know when vital record registrations began for the state your ancestor died in, as it varied from state to state. It’s equally important to know if that registration occurred earlier for a larger city or county within that state. A state may have required death registration years after counties or large cities were already documenting these events. The chart below provides a guideline to when death registration occurred on the state level.

Date of Required State Death Certificates

Alabama 1908Alaska 1913Arizona 1909Arkansas 1914California July 1905
Colorado 1907Connecticut 1897Delaware 1881Florida 1899Georgia 1919
Hawaii 1859Idaho 1911Illinois 1916Indiana 1899Iowa 1880
Kansas 1911Kentucky 1911Louisiana 1914Maine 1892Maryland 1898
Massachusetts 1841Michigan 1867Minnesota 1908Mississippi 1912Missouri 1910
Montana 1907Nebraska 1905Nevada 1911New Hampshire 1901New Jersey 1848
New Mexico 1920New York 1880North Carolina 1913North Dakota 1907Ohio 1908
Oklahoma 1908Oregon 1903Pennsylvania 1906Rhode Island 1853South Carolina 1915
South Dakota 1905Tennessee 1908Texas 1903Utah 1905Vermont 1857
Virginia 1853Washington July 1907West Virginia 1917Wisconsin 1907Wyoming July 1909

Source: FamilySearch

Please note that some counties started recording deaths much earlier than their parent state. So always check the county your ancestor died in. In some cases, states did not start registering deaths on January 1st so the year quoted above might be only partial years. Interruptions (like war) can also occur with vital record registration, leaving some deaths not recorded. The District of Columbia started vital records registration in 1855.*

Where Are Death Certificates?

You’ve got the information you need to look for a death certificate, so where do you find the death certificate for your ancestor?

Start by searching the FamilySearch Catalog. FamilySearch has vital records on microfilm and through their Records collection. If they do not have what you need, check digitized images available from subscription genealogy websites. In some cases, older vital records are kept in a county or state archive. Remember, not everything is online – so make sure you seek out information about the county you are researching. To learn more about death records, see the FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki page for the state and county you are researching.

If you need to order a death certificate, always try to obtain it from the county where the death occurred. Often this can mean less time waiting for your certificate copy. Search online by typing the county you are interested in and the phrase “vital records.”

Please note that in some cases there is more involved in ordering a certificate than just simply filling out a form and sending payment. Counties are different, even within the same state. Some may require a government-issued ID or a signed notary statement. In some cases, there are restrictions on who can request a certificate or what years can be requested.

You may have a choice of what type of certificate you receive. For example, in California you can choose a certified copy or an information copy. However, the certified copy is only available to certain people. Everyone else gets an information copy that is not only redacted but includes a large black stamp across the record indicating that is an information copy.

Start Searching for Death Certificates

Do you have death certificates for your more recent ancestors? Have you looked to see what you are missing? Who should have a death certificate that you need to look for? Remember that a death certificate is just one way to document a death. Learning about your ancestor’s death means not just obtaining the records, but really analyzing what they are telling you and then proving or disproving the clues they hold.

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* Vitalrec.com; FamilySearch Family History Research Wiki; Family Tree Magazine Vital Records Chart https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/1581dca03d2195ad?projector=1

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