By: Carolyn L. Barkley
Emily Bronte said, “Oh, for the time I shall sleep without identity.” This sentiment is not one popular with genealogists! The need for documented death information is very important to our research. While such information can add chronological context to the lives of our ancestors, more importantly, it can help distinguish between individuals of the same name living in the same location at the same time.
As with much genealogical research, however, information can be difficult to find. Statewide death record registration often did not begin until the late nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. Earlier death records were maintained at the local level (town, county, etc.) in some jurisdictions, but not in all.
Locating information about the death of individuals requires creative thinking and diligent research. Here are a few strategies you may wish to use. Taken together, they can add significantly to your ancestral search.
Always look for an official death certificate, whether at the state or local level. You may wish to search online for state-specific record availability or use print sources such as Thomas Kemp’s International Vital Records Handbook (5th edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009). If you locate a death certificate, it may include information about the funeral home and/or the cemetery in addition to all of the specific vital record information it will contain. In some cases, the funeral home and cemetery information, in addition to the cause of death, will be some of the most reliable information in the record, depending on the relationship of the informant to the deceased.
Search for an obituary in the local newspaper. Submitting the obituary to the press was (and often still is) one of the responsibilities of the funeral home or mortuary. The obituary will contain information of genealogical value (but make sure to document it) and may also include the funeral home and cemetery used. In some time eras, obituaries were less common but death and funeral notices were published. While death notices often provide only minimal information about the deceased, they may provide cemetery or funeral home information.
Funeral Cards and Other Ephemera
Funeral cards, sometimes referred to as mass or remembrance cards, were used to inform family members, friends, and members of the community about the date and time of a funeral. In addition to artwork, they might include name, residence, death date, age, date, time and place of the funeral, and place of interment. This latter information can be particularly important if the place of interment was located at a distance from the site of the funeral. Today, these cards may be found in collections of family papers, placed in the back of family Bibles, at flea markets and auctions, and in historical society collections.
Coffin plates were decorative plates or plaques that were attached to coffins and provided the name of the deceased and the date of death. While coffin plates became affordable to most families by the time of the Industrial Revolution, it became common practice, at least in the northeastern states, to remove the plate before the burial or to place the plate on a table near the casket. These coffin plates were then kept as family mementos.
Information on funeral cards, coffin plates, and other such ephemera is scattered; however, two web sites may help you in your search for them:
Ancestors at Rest is a web site that provides a searchable database of death record-related information including funeral cards and coffin plates, either under surname or location. Please be sure to scroll down the page, as the top of each contains a separate search box for Ancestry.com. Scroll further down to find the responses to your surname or location funeral card search. One of my surname searches turned up a funeral card for Emma Dorothea Schrader. The card listed that she was born in Ripley Co. Indiana, on March 16, 1864, and died in the same county on 7 June, 1920, aged 56 years, 2 months, and 20 days, but no mention of cemetery or date of her funeral was included. A locality search provides a list of all the items available for that state. Searching in Connecticut, I found listings for three coffin plates, one as early as 1719; three family Bibles; and two funeral cards. The coffin plate for Martha Huntington (1719-1774) included the information that she was the consort of Samuel Huntington, the Governor of Connecticut, and that she died on June 3, 1774. You may submit transcripts or photographic images of death records to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Genealogy Today also provides free access to an online collection of funeral cards. I looked at the card for Genevieve E. Dodd, who was born December 29, 1879 and died May 15, 1974. Her funeral was held on Saturday, May 18th, at 10:30 a.m. at Our Lady of Good Hope Church in Miamisburg, Ohio. The cemetery is listed as Catholic Cemetery, and the funeral home was Gebhart and Schmidt.
While I would not normally classify city directories as ephemera, I have on occasion found vital record information, such as death dates, included in the volume published in the year following an individual’s death. Moral of story: Think creatively!
Funeral Home / Mortuary Records
Funeral home and mortuary records may prove extremely helpful. First, you may find a record of the funeral arrangements themselves. For example, when Felix Connolly died in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1915, the bill included costs for a casket, hearse, embalming services, carriage, candles, notice in the paper, and copy of the doctor’s certificate. Deaths within families were more frequent in other eras, and families often used the same undertaker. A surname search through a funeral home’s records may locate information about other family members or may identify children whose births may have been stillborn or were otherwise unknown. A funeral bill sent to Harry McKearnan in New York in 1915, for example, listed only the cost ($5.00) for the burial of “an infant.”
Information about the location of funeral homes is readily available in such standard library reference section publications as The National Directory of Morticians: The Red Book Funeral Home Directory. This publication, currently providing listings to over 23,000 funeral homes in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, has been published since 1936. It now also provides an online Funeral Home Directory. My online search for Springfield, Massachusetts, provided the name, address, and phone number for fourteen funeral homes in Hampden County.
Even if a funeral home is not listed, contact one in the same town or city and inquire if your funeral home of interest still exists. If they are no longer in business, ask who might have acquired their records. You may also be able to locate funeral home records in local and state historical societies, libraries, or archives. Occasionally, such records can be found online. For example, the records of the Kent Funeral Home in Green City, Sullivan County, Missouri, from mid-1915 to 31 December 2000, are available online. The original funeral home records have been augmented by cemetery listings, early birth and marriage records, genealogical research by individual families, published obituaries, and other sources. My standard Barclay/Barkley search located six Barkleys, four buried in Green Castle Cemetery in Green Castle, and two buried in Fairview Cemetery in Green City. Entries included parents’ names, name of wife or husband, birth and death dates, and marital status (widowed, married). From this information I could quickly construct a three generation pedigree chart that linked the Fairview Cemetery Barkleys to the Green Castle Cemetery Barkleys.
The cemetery office may be one of your best sources of information. I make it a practice to call ahead to make sure that someone will be available in the office when I want to visit. I have found staff to be extremely helpful, often having copies of information waiting for me when I arrived. One cemetery, knowing that I was bringing my mother along, made two copies so that we wouldn’t have to share! Cemetery office information may include a map of the family plot indicating who might be already buried there (and perhaps not included on the stone), the owner of the plot, and when it was purchased. In addition, for each individual buried in the plot, birth and death dates may be noted as well as cause of death (and funeral home). When I went to Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield, Massachusetts, to locate my grandfather’s grave site (which I had not visited for many years), the records available included a newspaper clipping of my grandfather’s obituary, as he had been City Clerk in Springfield for many years. Cemeteries may be located through such online sources as FuneralNet, through Google searches, and by contacting local historical societies and libraries.
Information on the deaths of our ancestors can be found in many places. By aggregating the information found on death certificates, obituaries, funeral cards, coffin plates, funeral homes, and cemeteries, and by documenting all non-original source information, we can add a great deal of detail to our understanding of the lives – and deaths – of our ancestors. When conducting this research, remember that many of these sources are records of private businesses having no obligation to share them with us. After all, libraries/record repositories and businesses may have limited staff to assist us in our search. As always, these institutions will appreciate your clear, concise written requests for information accompanied by a willingness to pay for any research time or copying costs.