Nineteen Kinds of Death Records and Their Uses

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Last month, I listed 28 places to find birth information, and the number could have been higher. Death records are less ubiquitous, probably because documents with birth dates accumulate for a lifetime. But there are still several excellent places to find death records, and some of them have a wealth of other information.

Death records

Examples of death certificates and obituary


Death Certificates

The official record in modern times is a death certificate. Depending on the time and place, it may be issued by a doctor or other medical practitioner who attended the deceased, or by an official registrar of vital records. Besides providing the name of the deceased and the time and place of death, it may include various details. In fact, death certificates can be interesting reading. (Sorry, is that too grim?) You may find:

  • cause of death (sometimes in grisly detail)
  • last place of residence
  • age at death
  • birth information
  • marriage data, including marital status and spouse’s name
  • burial information
  • parents of the deceased and their birthplaces

As with birth certificates, every jurisdiction has its own rules about when death certificates become publicly available, who can obtain them in the meantime, and the processes for obtaining them. The Internet is your best friend, when you need to find where and how to obtain an official copy of a death certificate. For example, if I were searching for my brother’s death certificate, I’d start with this search term: “Colorado death certificate.”

For genealogical purposes, WorldVitalRecords itself could prove to be your best friend. We have indexed hundreds of millions of death records from around the world, and many of our one billion family tree records also contain death information.

Most US states began recording deaths in the early decades of the 20th century. Many US counties started decades earlier. In New England, towns began recording deaths as soon as they began to be towns. There is similar variation from nation to nation, and often within nations.

In the United States, for most deaths since the 1930s, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is useful and could be considered an official source. It is available at WorldVitalRecords.

Other Sources

Church records often include deaths and burials.

Obituaries

Example of newspaper obituaries

Obituaries are fairly reliable sources of death information, because they tend to be written within a few days of a death. They are rich, but less reliable, sources of other information, which is less proximate. They may contain birth and marriage data, as well as the names of family members who preceded the deceased in death, and surviving family members and their spouses. It’s common to find information about education, military service, and professional activities, among other biographical information. However, bear in mind that obituaries tend to be written on short notice, with short deadlines, and at a time of emotional stress. Writers usually are relying mostly on memory, with a minimum of documentation and little time to remember, research, and write. Moreover, the emotion of the moment and a reasonable desire not to offend family members may color both the selection and wording of biographical detail. If you can’t find an obituary at WorldVitalRecords (often you can) or elsewhere on the Internet, check the library for local newspapers. The funeral home involved, if you can identify it, may keep a file of obituaries, too.

Funeral programs tucked away in drawers, boxes, and files can be good sources of death information.

News articles and death notices in newspapers are reasonably reliable, contemporaneous sources. (Of course, obituaries often run in newspapers, too.)

Family histories, family Bibles, and family member journals can be good sources of information as to the timing and circumstances of someone’s death.

Siblings, children, other close relatives, neighbors, and close friends may be good sources of clues, at least, and a general sense of when and how someone died, even if they don’t remember precise dates.

Cemetery records may even include obituaries. And by all means don’t forget tombstones, where death information is literally carved in stone. (You can search millions of tombstones at WorldVitalRecords.)

Death dates listed in Roll of Honor, Nos. VII-X. U.S. Quartermaster's Dept. (1866).

Military records may have death information, if the individual died in military services. Military pension records generally include death information, regardless of the time and circumstances of death. In fact, a spouse’s military pension records may include an individual’s death information, too.

Probate records often have death information.

That box in the attic probably won’t be as fruitful a source of death information as it is of birth information, but it may still be useful. Letters, bills, and other documents may have actual data or at least offer clues.

Census records can offer circumstantial evidence of the year — perhaps I should say the decade — of someone’s death. If the 1930 census lists great-grandpa but the 1940 census doesn’t, this may suggest that he passed away between those two censuses. Tax records, city and phone directories, and land records can narrow the time down further.

Duplicate!

As always, when your search leads you to a record, don’t just record the information in your tree. Record the source, too. And if you find an actual document, upload it to your tree, share it with family members, and put it in a file folder — all of which will help others to find it.

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10 Responses to “Nineteen Kinds of Death Records and Their Uses”

  1. I would like help finding Michael Alan Barthwell obituary to obtain a picture photo of him. Can you please help me? My contact info is 26720 Kathy st Roseville, Michigan 48066 and my telephone number is(586)840-6108. You have my email. Michaels birthdate 10/19/1954 his death date 09/22/2006. His place of residence was Detroit Michigan 48226.Please contact me immediately.

  2. Please help.net find printing company that printed his obituary.

  3. I am editor and publisher of http://www.Galiziengermandescendants.org I found your article on 19 kinds of death
    records of interest and would like your permission to use your article in one of our upcoming issues. May I have your
    permission to do so.

    ** personal contact information redacted for display **

  4. P. Wood says:

    another source is Mormon Church Records, [IGI - International Genealogical index] a valuable source I found for both birth and death records, as well a descendants. Their website is FamilySearch.org or LDS. I have used Who’s Who history books, historical Encyclopedias, Cenus Records, Ships Passenger Lists [The information for these can be difficult to find and to discern unless they were accurately recorded]

    Town Records, these records contain meeting minutes and often contain valuable stories about what brought about certain situations, and what actions were take and by whom. Information on who built the town, who the mayor was, who the largest benefactor was, etc. Often, whole families are mentioned. This is especially true of places such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the committees [town councils], that are formed often contain the names of the largest families in any given location. Chances are, the higher the number of males in a family, the more likely it is that one or more of them served on a committee, or was a major benefactor for a school or church. Information on their lives and members of their families were often closely recorded.

    I used any or all sources available, I just went on Google one day and typed in the surname I was looking for and got well over a 100 options. Then I purposely started playing with variations of the name by misspelling it and found multitudes of information on individuals and their life histories. I even used Google books to see if any of the people had been written about and this was a successful choice as well. I found books on the civil war, the Revolutionary War, Battles in Scotland, Ireland and England. My searches led me back to the Viking Age. My Ancestry Research proved to be very successful, fruitful and very interesting. I found people in my family line that I did not believe existed.

    I used each piece of information as a new piece of a puzzle to find other missing pieces. Vital Statistics are a great place to start, yet there is a wealth of information an

  5. john mcguirk says:

    my great grandfather was lost at sea in 1884. he was resident of baltray, drogheda, co. louth, ireland. he was married to latisha freeman in 1881 in termonfeckin , drogheda. co. louth but i cant find any thing regarding his death, ship etc. can you please help? regards, frank mcguirk

  6. FLORENCE MAE NELSON”SCHMIDT”

  7. George Grofos says:

    George came to America in 1905 and lived at Middlesex New Jersey I have been unable to find how he arrived and where he died, he was from Greece.

  8. C. Neal says:

    Your article is so useful. I’d like to know if it is permissible to reprint it in our society’s newsletter Thank you.

  9. I’m sorry not to reply sooner, but thanks for the kind words. You have permission to reprint the article, so long as it is properly credited (to the author and WorldVitalRecords.com), and, if the newsletter is in electronic form, so long as you including a visible, working link to the article here at the blog.

  10. I apologize for failing to reply sooner. You have permission to reprint the article, so long as it is properly credited (to the author and WorldVitalRecords.com), and, if the newsletter is in electronic form, so long as you including a visible, working link to the article here at the blog.

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