Halloween costumes and traditions, ranging from the silly to the creepy to the gory, preoccupy Americans and some other peoples at this time of year, wherever Western Christianity has been influential.
By contrast, death records of various kinds capture family historians’ attention year-round. We’ll look at several kinds of death records and consider their strengths, limitations, and usefulness in family history.
In a recent tour of a local mortuary (of which more in a later blog post), we were given a packet of paperwork and information that the funeral home provides to the family of the deceased. Its contents provide a good tour of the various death records that are available.
There are several pages in the packet related to funeral and burial arrangements, including prices of cemetery plots, caskets, concrete vaults, funeral services, and more. You might not think that any of these would be of genealogical interest, but cemetery plot purchase records, if you can find them, can lead to other death records and also help you locate the tombstone.
Death Certificate and Death Certificate Application
The folder also contains a death certificate application, from which an official death certificate is created. The application itself may be kept on file at the funeral home and may be useful when studying family history.
The application will vary from place to place. The one we were given asks for the following information about the deceased:
• US Social Security Number
• Place of death
• Time of death
• Attending Physician
• Date of death
• Place of birth
• Date of birth
• Spouse – Living – yes or no, and date of death if applicable
• Place of Marriage
• Date of Marriage
• Church affiliation
• School year complete
• Veteran – yes or no – and branch of service
• Clubs/Activities/Accomplishments/Church Service
The application also asks for this information about the person filling out the application:
• Family Contact Name
• Phone Number
• Email Address
• Relationship to deceased
You can see how this application can lead to other information. Church affiliation, for example, can lead you to the church the deceased attended. There you may find other records about the deceased, the family, the community, and more. Veteran status can lead to you extensive military records. Information about the spouse and parents of the deceased can lead to their records, of course.
Once the official death certificate has been created, it becomes an especially important genealogical record, of course. But it’s also crucial to setting the lost loved one’s affairs in order.
Institutions requiring a copy of the death certificate in the United States include:
• Life Insurance Company
• Social Security Administration
• Retirement and Pension Accounts
• Family Trust
• Title Company
• Health Insurance company
• Pre-Arranged Funeral Planning companies
• Investment Brokers
• Credit Card Companies
Social Security Death Index
In the United States, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is an excellent starting point for finding people who have died in the United States since the late 1930s. Follow this link to search the SSDI at WorldVitalRecords.
Not all SSDI records are complete, but they will usually include most of the following:
• First, Middle and Last Name
• Name Suffix
• Social Security Number
• Place of Issuance (of Social Security card)
• ZIP Code of Last Residence — which can be extrapolated to city, county, and state
• Death Date
• Estimated Age at Death
At the WorldVitalRecords SSDI page for each individual, you can also find deceased neighbors. This may help you find other ancestors who also lived in the general vicinity.
The packet also includes a guide for writing obituaries. The obituary can be an interesting and useful historical record, even though hard-core genealogists are quick to observe that it is not a “primary” record and is of little official value.
The obituary may include several categories of information:
• Full name of deceased
• Date, place cause of death (if desired)
• Date, place of birth
• Spouse with maiden name
• Education: Schools, colleges attended, accomplishments, degrees earned, licenses held
• Military service: which war or conflict, where stationed
• Residential history
• Work/career history and work affiliations
• Church membership and service within the church
• Hobbies or other interests
• Survivors: names, city and state of residence of spouse, children, parents, grandchildren, grandparents and siblings
• Nephews, nieces, cousins and friends
• Family members preceding love one in death: spouse, parents, children, siblings and grandchildren
Scheduled Ceremonies and Gatherings of Remembrance
• Funeral or memorial service: date, time, place, name and phone number of funeral director
• Place of burial or entombment
• Visitation information: day, time, and place
Thank you and Memorial Giving
• Mention any people or groups you wish to thank publicly for care given to the deceased.
• Memorial funds or other directions on how to memorialize the deceased.
Note that publishing obituaries in newspapers can be quite expensive. Many newspapers will run a much shorter “death notice” free of charge. Such a notice will contain less information, of course, but is still useful.
Last Will and Testament
The packet also provides some guidance about the last will and testament and the probate process.
A person’s last will and testament and related probate records will typically be archived by a local government. These can be rich sources of information. Apart from listing assets and heirs, these records can paint a picture of the life and times of the deceased.
Remember, family history is more than genealogy, with its names, dates, and places. It explores a person’s story. Knowing that the deceased bequeathed a black pot, a hairbrush, a car, and a house to various heirs can help to create a vivid picture of the household.
The packet also gives information about choosing and purchasing a tombstone, and deciding what will be inscribed on it. Like the obituary, the tombstone is an unofficial record, but it can be useful. It’s also very durable; it’s the one place that basic information about the deceased is literally carved in stone.
Tombstones are photographed and indexed by genealogists. You can find millions of them at WorldVitalRecords in our FindaGrave and other collections.
Several other kinds of records related to death can be informative, if you can find them. The funeral guestbook, the funeral program, and medical records can provide valuable glimpses of the deceased.
It’s common now for audio or video records to be made of funerals. A funeral often includes a life sketch, as well as friends and family remembering the deceased. Even if you can’t find a recording of the funeral, family members often distribute and treasure printed copies of the life sketch.
Death is a fact of life. Eventually, it comes to all of us, bringing grief and sorrow, and inspiring fear. Later, though, the records of it become treasures to families who explore their histories.