Genealogy Tip: Death Certificates

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips for finding and using an important resource for genealogy: death certificates. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

Death certificates hold a wealth of information for family historians, and should be one of the key documents in a genealogist’s search.

Photo: Eddie August Schneider’s (1911-1940) death certificate, issued in New York. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Eddie August Schneider’s (1911-1940) death certificate, issued in New York. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to civil registration, churches kept records of deaths and burials. In New England, death records were kept at the town level as early as 1639. Throughout the nineteenth century, some states required counties to keep death records, but there was seldom general compliance. Early in the twentieth century, many states began statewide registration of deaths, with a standardized death certificate form coming into place by 1910. Some states did not have general compliance of recording deaths until a few decades after civil registration began.

Death certificates are currently the only legal way to prove a person’s death. The process of reporting a death requires a physician or neurologist to confirm the cause of death and verify the identity of the deceased. This launches the issuance of the death certificate, which enables government agencies to update records such as electoral registers, government benefits and passports, and to transfer inheritances.

Death certificates usually include the name of the deceased, the birth and death dates, the place of death, the cause of death, the names of the parents, the name of the informant, and where the deceased was buried. They sometimes state the places of birth for the deceased and the parents, how long the deceased was a resident of the area, the marital status, and the name of the surviving spouse. The death certificate can be a way to learn the maiden names of female ancestors. The names and birthplaces of the parents are often key information needed to extend a family line back. The burial information can be used in finding additional records created around the person’s burial.

Death registers pre-date death certificates. This record is kept by churches, towns, or counties that recorded local deaths. They list the names of the deceased and when they died. Some include ages or birth information. Some give names of parents or surviving spouses. Some state where the death took place, though that can often be assumed based on the locality that kept the record.

The availability of death registers and death certificates varies between states and even between counties within the same state. You can look up the dates of vital record registration in the FamilySearch Wiki. The Wiki also references databases to search for death registers and death certificates. Many records are available for free in FamilySearch.

In many states, the best way to obtain a death certificate is to go to the state’s archive website and request the death certificate. Each state has its own privacy rules around accessing death certificates: some require you to have proof of relationship to the deceased; others keep death certificates private for a certain amount of time. Additionally, some states require you to pay for the death certificate. Some states will provide you an electronic copy and others will mail you a paper copy.

A Few Case Studies

When researching a couple who lived in the nineteenth century, I had no proof of the wife’s maiden name. Since their children died in the twentieth century, I was able to look up death certificates for them to find out their mother’s maiden name. It is important to note that the information on a death certificate is only as reliable as the informant. In this case, the parents’ names were not recorded on some of the children’s death certificates. However, one daughter’s 1908 death certificate recorded the mother’s maiden name: Mary Ann Blackburn’s mother was listed as Tressia Bartemire. (1) Knowing her maiden name was helpful in searching marriage records for the couple.

The New York City death certificate of Randolph Nelson Smith stated that his father was William H. Smith and his mother was Anna Miller. (2) Other records of his parents stated they were William H. Smith and Polly Miller. Additional evidence showed that, of the multiple William Smiths in Norfolk County, Virginia, at the time, only the ancestor had been designated as William H. Smith. In this case, the name Polly seems more likely than Anna, even though Anna is the name listed on the official death certificate. Randolph Nelson Smith was in his 80s when he died, so the informant is not likely to have known his parents. The records created of William and Polly were made while they were alive, so they are more likely to have correct information. Despite this discrepancy, the death certificate was still useful in connecting the Randolph Nelson Smith in New York City to the correct Smith family in Norfolk County, Virginia.

In the case of a deceased child where the parent is the informant, the information is likely to be correct. However, in this case and in other cases, the informant supplying the information for the death certificate did so while grieving, and this may have affected the accuracy of the information they furnished.

You may learn valuable information about your ancestors on death certificates and in death registers. Be sure to search for them the next time you are looking for information to fill in your family tree.

Resources:

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(1) Missouri Division of Health, death certificate 19308 (1933), Mary Ann Blackburn; Missouri Digital Heritage, digital image, (https://s1.sos.mo.gov/Records/Archives/ArchivesMvc/: accessed 25 August 2022).
(2) City of New York Department of Health, death certificate 1556 (1913), Randolph N Smith; digital image, FamilySearch, (https://familysearch.org: accessed 31 August 2022), film #004005963, image #1813.

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