Date and/or place of burial or disposition of cremated remains

Death Records
B Y D AV I D A . F R Y X E L L
3 WHEN RESEARCHING YOUR ancestor’s story, many
genealogy experts recommend beginning with the final
chapter—the record of an ancestor’s death. After all, a death
certificate or other death record represents the most recent
evidence of your ancestor’s life. This workbook will show
you what’s in a death record, how to find one, and what other
records include the death information you seek. We’ll also
provide a worksheet you can fill in (and photocopy, if need
be) to map out your death records search.
Clues in death records
The death certificate is considered a primary source for the
details of an ancestor’s passing, such as the date, place and
time of death. It also can be a rich secondary source for an
ancestor’s life, providing clues to everything from birth and
parents to spouse and last residence. Such information on
death records is considered less reliable because it comes
from the informant—typically a spouse, child or other family
member. Not only would the informant have been grieving,
but he or she would have only second-hand knowledge of
facts such as the deceased’s date and place of birth or his
parents’ names. Research other sources to confirm the data a
death record provides on a person’s life.
Nonetheless, particularly from more recent years, a
death certificate can deliver a wealth of information about
a deceased ancestor and jump-start your search for earlier
details about his life. Among the facts you might find in a
death record are:
Deceased’s name
Age at death
Cause of death and details about the length of illness,
along with name of attending physician
Exact time of death
Witnesses at the time of death
Name and location of mortuary
Date and/or place of burial or disposition of cremated
Maiden name of a deceased woman
Marital status at the time of death
Name of surviving spouse
Date and/or place of birth
Names of parents and sometimes their place of birth
Name and sometimes address of informant
Residence of the deceased
Occupation and/or name of employer
Religious affiliation
How long in this country or location
Social Security number (common on records after 1950)
The names you find in a death record can of course lead
you to other relatives, and perhaps even push back your
genealogical search by a generation (pending confirmation
from primary sources). The name of the informant could also
be exactly the clue you need to solve a maiden-name mystery.
Place names, however, can provide equally important
clues: An ancestor’s burial location can lead you to the
cemetery, where previously unknown relatives may be in
nearby graves. A residential address can aid your search
in census records, city directories or land records. Besides
filling in blanks in your family tree, dates can point to
other records—newspaper obituaries, passenger records,
other vital records. Even the cause of death can be helpful,
whether in building a medical family history or (in cases of
accidental or criminal causes) prompting a search for newspaper articles about the fatality.
Death record coverage
Today we think of every death as being carefully scrutinized
and recorded. Even if a deceased person doesn’t undergo
the sort of medical examination common on TV shows such
as “CSI:” or “Bones,” at least a funeral home is involved
Individual towns or counties may
and a sheaf of paperwork generated. People in 21st-century
America who leave this world are just as well-documented as
when they arrive in it or get married.
Unfortunately for genealogists, however, such meticulous
recording hasn’t always been the case. Depending on where
and when your ancestor died, death records may be skimpy
or even nonexistent. It’s surprising in our data-dependent
era to learn that some states didn’t require recording of
deaths until the first decade or so of the 20th century. The
earliest state to start death registration is Massachusetts, in
1841, followed by New Jersey in 1848. Recording in Southern and the newer Western states was generally later, with
official death records beginning in Louisiana, Tennessee and
Arkansas only in 1914, and South Carolina in 1915. Illinois
was the last Midwestern state, in 1916. West Virginia followed in 1917; New Mexico and Georgia were last to start
recording deaths, in 1919.
Even after statewide death registration began in a state,
compliance from border to border may have taken another
few years, and you may find gaps in the records. But individual towns or counties may have started records much
earlier than the states. In Virginia, for example, which waited
on statewide records until 1912, some counties kept death
Georgia, in 1919
state archives or libraries, state vital-records offices
PRIMARY SOURCE DETAILS: date, place and time of death,
other death-related information
SECONDARY SOURCE DETAILS: facts about an ancestor’s
life,such as birth date and place, and parents’ names
WEB SEARCH TERMS: death certificates genealogy, vital
records genealogy
place name (typically by state), then scroll to Vital Records
Indexes and/or Vital Records. Click to view listings of death
records and indexes available on microfilm, in print and
online at
records, obituaries, death notices, cemetery records, Social
Security Death Index, military death and pension records,
census mortality schedules, burial permits or body transit
permits, coroner’s records
have started recording deaths much
earlier than the states did.
records (including for slaves) as early as 1853. Louisiana,
although among the last to adopt statewide registration, has
some county death records as far back as 1803. Many New
England towns started keeping death records in their earliest
days, dating to the 17th century. In other places, major cities
may have begun death registration well before the rest of the
state: St. Louis recorded some deaths, for instance, from 1850
to 1910, and Charleston began in 1821, nearly a century before
South Carolina mandated it. The information in early death
records, particularly those at the town or county level before
statewide registration, may vary widely from place to place.
Although privacy restrictions more commonly affect the
availability of birth records, you may run into some such
roadblocks with death certificates, too. Unless you’re an
immediate relative, death certificates are private for 20 years
in Maryland, 25 years in Texas, and 50 years in Arizona, New
Mexico, New York, Oregon and Tennessee. In Florida, access
is granted but the cause of death will be redacted on certificates less than 50 years old. Three states—Colorado, Iowa
and Nevada—completely restrict access, regardless of how
long ago the person died, to “qualified applicants.” In Iowa,
for example, applicants must have “direct or tangible interest
in the record” and prove “a lineal relationship to the registrant, such as a legal parent, grandparent, spouse, brother,
sister, child, legal guardian, or legal representative.” Nonrelatives can access Colorado death records by obtaining
signed, notarized consent from such a direct relative (whose
relationship to the deceased must be proven by a copy of the
person’s birth certificate).
Accessing death records
The original repository for most death records was an office,
such as the health department or vital records office, in the
county where the death occurred. Depending on the date
of the record, you might get a copy there, or hit up another
STATE AND COUNTY OFFICES: Generally, you’ll request
copies of death records created after statewide death registration began from state vital records offices or health
departments. You can find these offices’ websites with a
web search (Ohio death certificates or Ohio vital records, for
example). Or consult the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention’s list of links to state vital records offices <www.>.
Family Tree Magazine
Take note
of the deceased’s
marital status as
well as spouse’s
name; here’s
evidence that H.G.
Miller died before
June 1933.
death records
provide useful clues
for further research,
such as the name
and birthplace of
the deceased’s
Sources for
finding a mother’s
maiden name
can be scarce.
But now you can
follow up searching
for Blackfords in
Kentucky, and for a
marriage record for
Katherine and J.M.
informant’s name
can provide clues:
This informant’s
last name is
different from the
deceased’s maiden
and married
names. How is she
related—possibly a
married daughter?
The name of the undertaker can help
you find funeral-home records that could
contain more information.
Death Certificates, 1910-1962, No.
22056, Mary Susan Miller; digital image,
Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri
State Archives (
accessed 5 June 2011).
typically give the
deceased’s age
and place of birth
(which can lead to
birth records) and
survivors’ names—
though the wife
and children aren’t
named here.
Details of Mr.
Brownlee’s death
on the Gettysburg
battlefield are clues
to discovering
records of his
military service.
Keep in mind
tales of heroism
may have been
death notices
offer basic facts
about the date,
place and cause
of death. These
name the survivors,
candidates for
further research.
Vital recordkeeping gaps
during the Civil
War in many places
mean newspapers
may be the only
source for death
5 Newspapers
are generally
secondary sources
of information,
because a reporter’s
accounts are based
on someone else’s
recollection. Try to
confirm details in
other sources.
CITATION FOR THIS RECORD: “Obituary of Wm. M. Brownlee,” The Abingdon Virginian (Abingdon, Va.), 13
Nov. 1863, p. 3, col. 3; digital image, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress
( accessed 16 July 2013).
Family Tree Magazine
County or city offices covering the place where the death
occurred also may provide access to death records, and they
may have fewer access restrictions and lower fees. They’ll
also likely have any records kept before statewide death
records began. Check the department of health website for
the locality where the death took place for details.
Whether you request from the county or the state, follow
the site’s instructions for submitting your order. You may
have to print a form to drop in the mail with a check, or submit an online form with a credit card number. Fees generally
range from $6 to $15. Usually, you’ll have to provide at least
the deceased’s name at death and the date and place of death.
If you know the death certificate number, supply that as well.
You can order the same records available at state vital
records offices through third-party businesses such as
VitalChek <> (in some states, this is your
only option). Such businesses often provide faster service,
but usually for a higher fee.
Early death certificates may have been transferred to a
state or county archive, library or historical society. The
health department or vital records office website should
inform you if this is the case, or you can consult local genealogy guides.
ONLINE: A handful of states and localities provide online
access to digitized death records for at least some span of
years. Arizona offers a searchable index covering 1844 to
1962, linked to PDFs of the originals, at <>.
Nearly a million Michigan death certificates from 1897 to
1920 are digitized at <> (click Advanced
Search). You can find digitized Cincinnati death (and birth)
records from 1865 to 1910—predating Ohio statewide vital
recordkeeping—on the University of Cincinnati Libraries
website <>.
You might find your ancestor in a death index, compiled by someone who looked through death records and
extracted names, death dates and other pertinent details.
Use this data to request the actual record. The index may
have a link to order the record from the holding agency. If
not, examine the site for information on the source of the
records and directions for ordering a copy or finding it on
microfilm. The Massachusetts state archives, for example,
indexes deaths from 1841 to 1910 at <
arc/arcsrch/VitalRecordsSearchContents.html> and tells you
how to request records.
Death records or indexes are increasingly available online
at Go to <> ,
then scroll down and click United States. Click the state on
the left. Look for a death records title on the list in the center
of the screen. Some of the collections are still being added
to, and not all are indexed. The Social Security Death Index
(SSDI), also on, is a quick way to find the
death date and place of ancestors recent enough to have
Social Security numbers. Most of the deaths listed occur after
1962, the year the database was computerized.
<> Birth, Marriage and Death
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Where to Write for Vital Records
Cyndi’s List: Death Records
<> <>
GenealogyBank <>
Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and
Causes of Death <> <>
Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records
US Census Bureau: Mortality Schedules
The USGenWeb Project <>
VitalChek <>
World Vital Records
Publications and Resources
The American Blue Book of Funeral Directors
Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Guide for Family
Historians by David Annal and Audrey Collins
(Pen and Sword)
Cemetery Research on the Internet
by Nancy Hendrickson (Green Pony Press)
The Family Tree Sourcebook: The Essential Guide to
American County and Town Sources by the editors of
Family Tree Magazine (Family Tree Books)
The History of Death: Burial Customs and Funeral Rites,
from the Ancient World to Modern Times by Michael
Kerrigan (Lyons Press)
My Ancestor Died of Scarlet Fever: Family History,
Diseases and Death Certificates by Ruth Alexandra
Symes (Portrayer Publishers)
Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records:
A Guide for Family Historians by Celia Heritage
(Pen and Sword)
Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo
Carmack (Betterway)
Put It Into Practice
To find these record collections and indexes, run a Google
search on the city, county or state, death records and genealogy. Also check websites of the state archives and the state
and local genealogical society. Search online for books containing death indexes, too.
Most subscription genealogy sites have death records and
indexes, most notably World Vital Records <www.worldvital> and <>. Search these
sites’ list of databases by place and then scroll to see whether
death records are available.
Especially for New England ancestors, the American
Ancestors subscription site <>
from the New England Historic Genealogical Society may
have local death records unavailable elsewhere online.
MICROFILM: The Family History Library has microfilmed
death records and indexes for locations across the country.
Search the online catalog at <> for the place your ancestor may have died, then scroll
through the results for death records. You can borrow these
through your local FamilySearch Center. State archives and
local libraries also may have microfilmed death records you
can borrow through interlibrary loan.
2. Where was Henry’s last residence?
Death record substitutes
1. Why might it be difficult to find a death certificate for an
ancestor who lived in the early 1800s?
2. A death certificate is …
a. a primary source for details about the deceased’s death
b. a secondary source for information such as birth and
c. a primary source for information such as birth and parents
d. a and b
EXERCISE A: Go to’s database of Ohio Deaths
1908-1953 <>
and search for Henry Essel. View the record for the Bavarian
immigrant born in 1844.
1. When did Henry die?
3. What were the names of Henry’s parents?
4. Write a citation for this record.
EXERCISE B: Pick an ancestor whose obituary you want to find.
Using the Chronicling America website <chroniclingamerica.loc.
gov>, identify three newspapers from places your ancestor lived
to search for an obituary.
If your search for official death records fails, or you need
to supplement skimpy information in what you’ve found,
other resources can help. Of course, there are cemetery and
tombstone records, which you can read about in an upcoming Workbook. But don’t overlook funeral home, newspaper,
church and even census records:
FUNERAL: The information in these records may include
names of family members, details of the funeral service and
even the cost of burial. You may be able to identify the funeral
home from the death certificate, newspaper obituary, cemetery records or family papers. A funeral home that nearby
relatives used is a likely bet, or you can check city directories
of the time for funeral homes near where the family lived.
Then you can try to locate the funeral home today (or its successor), either through a web search or directory websites
such as <>, <www.funeralhomedirectory.
com> or <> . A printed directory to US
funeral homes, which your library or a cooperative local
funeral director may have, is The American Blue Book of
Funeral Directors (Kates-Boylston). Historical societies and
TIP: If the state where your ancestor died had yet to begin
statewide record-keeping by the time of his death, check
town, city and county records, which may have begun earlier.
Free Web Content
Vital Records Chart downloadable
cheat sheet <familytreemagazine.
Cemetery research kit
Genealogy Q&A: Finding a death
date and place <familytreemagazine.
For Plus Members
Finding your ancestor’s burial place
US Vital Records on-demand webinar
Vital records resources
Getting Creative With Death Records
video class <
Family Tree Essentials CD
Online vital records guide
libraries in your ancestor’s hometown also might help you
track down funeral homes, especially those that’ve been
absorbed by other homes.
When contacting a funeral home, remember that it’s a
private business. While funeral homes are often helpful to
genealogists, they are under no obligation to be. You may be
asked to demonstrate your connection to the deceased.
NEWSPAPER: The local newspaper may have recorded
your ancestor’s passing in the form of a death notice listing
just the basic facts, or an obituary with details about his life
and family. The proliferation of online digitized newspapers
can help you find these. Try and its sibling
site <>, both of which
require a subscription; subscription site GenealogyBank
<> , which also has a database of
recent newspaper obituaries; subscription site
<>; and the free Chronicling America site
from the Library of Congress <> .
Several states have online newspaper collections, including Colorado <>, Georgia
<>, Washington <> and others.
Ask your library if it subscribes to ProQuest Obituaries,
a service that offers more than 10.5 million obituaries from
newspapers dating back to 1851. Newspaper Obituaries
on the Net <> is a collection of links
to other websites. And the USGenWeb Obituary Project
<> provides transcriptions of public
domain obituary indexes and transcriptions, organized by
state and county.
In addition, check archives, historical societies and libraries in the area where your ancestor lived for indexes to obituaries and death notices, such as those of Alaska Libraries,
Archives and Museums <> and the Wisconsin
Historical Society <>.
You can also use an online search engine such as Google
<> or Bing <> to look for ancestors’ obituaries. Try searching for a name plus obituary; include a place
if the deceased’s name is common.
CHURCH RECORDS: Many churches recorded the deaths
of their members in funeral registers. Your research strategy for these records varies by the religion. Your best bet
1 Most states and counties didn’t keep death certificates in the early
19th century. You would need to look for other types of death records.
2d. 3c. EXERCISE A 1 Dec. 14, 1945 2 140 Mason St., Cincinnati
3 Henry A. Essel, Elise Bauer 4 “Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1953,” index
and images, FamilySearch (
X6YP-CYT: accessed 24 June 2013), Henry G Essel, 14 Dec. 1945.
is to contact the place of worship your ancestor attended.
If it no longer exists, contact the parish that absorbed it or
a regional office for the faith. You also might find church
records microfilmed through the Family History Library:
Run a place search of the FamilySearch online catalog and
look for a church records heading.
CORONER RECORDS: Deaths occurring by accident or
under suspicious circumstances may have been subject to a
coroner’s investigation. The death certificate and newspaper
articles may indicate such a death. Coroner records may be
at the county morgue, historical society or state archives.
Old coroner records are online, at least in index form, for a
few areas, such as San Francisco <
sfdata.htm#sfcoroner>, St. Louis <
resources/coroners> and Summit County, Ohio <www.>. Look for these
on FamilySearch microfilm, too.
schedules for 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 name those who
died in the 12 months prior to the census date (June 1) for
these censuses. Find mortality schedules on
The 1850 schedule is searchable free on
MILITARY RECORDS: For ancestors who died in military
service, search the Nationwide Grave Locator <gravelocator.>, which lists burials in Veterans Administration
National Cemeteries, state veterans cemeteries, other military and Department of Interior cemeteries, and veterans
buried in private cemeteries with government grave markers
furnished after 1997. Also peruse military records and pensions on the subscription site Fold3 <>.
One way or another, your ancestor’s final chapter is out
there for you to read. And what you find out about his death
may open a whole new window in learning about his life. <>
Name of ancestor at death
Other names used (including a maiden name)
Variant spellings
Date of death (give approximate date if exact date isn’t known)
Place of death (if known)
Place of burial (if known)
Statewide death registration start
City/county death registration dates
Contact to request official record, if extant
Online databases to search
Microfilm to order
Newspapers to check for obituary/death notice
Source citation:
Repository of original:
Date accessed:
Death record file number:
Deceased’s name:
Name of father:
Place of death:
Birthplace of father:
Date of death:
Marital status:
Name of mother:
Cause of death:
Name of spouse:
Birthplace of mother:
Was there an autopsy?
Date of birth:
Name of attending physician:
Place of birth:
Place of burial:
Age at death:
Date of burial:
Funeral home or undertaker,
name and address:
Relationship to the deceased, if given:
Date certificate filed:
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