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.
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.
Church records often include deaths and burials.
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.)
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.
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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