Death certificates are a primary source of genealogical information. They are considered a vital record and should be acquired for all ancestors when available. Death records are relatively new by genealogical standards, coming into common practice in the United States around 1910. Some records of deaths do exits prior to 1910. Each locality is different and should be checked for availability.
Death certificates can give a wealth of information if they are studied carefully. They not only inform where and when a person died but also include many other pieces of information about a person’s life. Whenever I acquire a new death certificate, I look at the document as if I know nothing about the deceased person. I take blank Family Group Sheets and fill them out with only the information found on the death certificate. This helps me to focus on the information contained in the certificate without preconceived ideas from previously acquired sources.
Information on the death certificate gives clues that lead to other records. After filling in the Family Group Sheets, I divide a paper into two columns. The extracted information from the death certificate is placed in the left column. The records that can be located with the information from the death certificate are placed on the right.
Clues in a death certificate and the records they lead to:
Date and place of death:
Obituary: usually includes biographical information and the names of survivors.
Will and Probate: may include names of family members and relationships.
Deed: when a death occurs, the sale of property is very likely.
Social Security record: name of parents, date of birth.
Hospital or nursing home records
Usual place of residence:
Deeds: where to look for deeds.
Tax records: same as deeds.
City directories: start the city directory search with the year of death and go backward.
Military records, pension records
Civil marriage record; church marriage record; divorce record; death record for spouse if widowed.
Date and place of birth:
Birth record, church baptism record, passenger list if foreign born, naturalization record if foreign born.
Trade or profession:
Occupational records; employment records
Father/mother's name and place of birth:
Vital records and church records for parents.
Cause of death:
Police records: death do to accident or if a criminal act was involved.
Court records: for the same reasons as police records.
Many times the informant is the nearest relative.
Cemetery records and tombstone.
Funeral home records
Autopsy report, coroner's report, police records, court records.
Once the list is done, I compare the extracted information with previously known data. I evaluate the evidence of all sources and determine which is the most reliable. For example, John Smith is listed as the father on a death certificate for Mary Smith. For this same Mary Smith, there is a birth certificate that lists James Smith as her father. The birth certificate would normally be the most reliable information for a father’s name because the record was made closer to when the event occurred. If in doubt, additional sources should be consulted.
It is important to compare a death certificate with the death certificates of siblings. Commonly, conflicting information will be found on death certificates of siblings regarding parents. Additional sources often clear up the confusion.
The next time a death certificate arrives, don’t record the date and place of death, then file it away. Study it, analyze it, and you will be rewarded with hidden treasure.