Death Records: A Checklist of Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Own

Note: As I am at the NGS Conference in the States in Kansas City, this week’s blog is an adaptation of an article by William Dollarhide that appeared in “Genealogical Pointers� in December 2006. Be sure to check out next week’s blog for news from the conference. Carolyn

William Dollarhide

1. DEATH CERTIFICATES. Always start with a death certificate as the names, dates, and places it contains will lead you to even further records. (Please remember that the certificate in itself is the beginning, not the end, of your search and that the information included may be incorrect.) A good rule is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestor as equals. Obtain a death certificate for each deceased ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every deceased brother or sister of that ancestor. For example, if there were six siblings in the family, a death certificate for each sibling will give six different sources about the same parents, places where the family lived, names of spouses, names of cemeteries, names of funeral directors, and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, a sibling’s death certificate might give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the www.vitalrec.com where detailed information about accessing death records can be found. It is a free-access website and all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories or possessions are represented.

2. FUNERAL RECORDS. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. A funeral record may include names of survivors, names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses, and, often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the deceased and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery may be included as well. Find a current funeral home in North America at www.funeralnet.com. This site provides the listings from “The Yellow Book,” a directory of funeral homes. If the funeral home listed on the death certificate is no longer listed in the current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

3. CEMETERY RECORDS. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record, there may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery or off-site at a caretaker’s home; the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried and whether the funeral home has an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or if it can give you the name of the keeper of the cemetery’s records. Ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers who cater to cemeteries in the area. A local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone. To locate a cemetery anywhere in the U.S., a special list can be obtained from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The GNIS contains the names of over two million place names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries. The GNIS website is located at http://geonames.usgs.gov/. Click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery.

4. OBITUARIES. A newspaper obituary, or at least a death notice, was probably published soon after the person’s death. Old newspapers from the town where the person died are usually available in the local public library, often on microfilm. If you know the name of the local newspaper or the name of the local library, try a Google search to obtain more information. You can locate many libraries at http://lists.webjunction.org/libweb/ or you can ask your local librarian to assist you in determining the name of the local newspaper local the libraries, or perhaps online resources, that may have the issue of interest to you. If a library does not provide obituary searches, contact the local genealogical society to obtain contact information for local researchers who can obtain the obituary for you. A good list of American genealogical societies is in THE GENEALOGIST’S ADDRESS BOOK, (available on CD from genealogical.com). You might also find a researcher via the Internet. Do a place search for people involved in genealogy in a locale near where you need help, send them an e-mail message, and promise to do something for them in exchange. Finally, check www.cyndislist.com under the category “obituaries” for direct links to sites that make obituary transcripts available online.

5. SOCIAL SECURITY RECORDS. If a person died within the last 35 years or so, the death certificate probably includes the deceased’s Social Security number. With or without a person’s Social Security number, you can write for a copy of any deceased person’s original application for a Social Security card, called a form SS-5. Since 1935, virtually every working person in America has applied for a Social Security account. You will need to consult the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) to see if the person is listed. Most people who died after 1962 will be listed there. One of the easiest of these look-up services is found at http://ssdi.genealogy.rootsweb.com/, where you can search in the SSDI by the surname, or optional first name, or the place in the U.S. where a person died. With the name and Social Security number, you can obtain a copy of the deceased’s application for a Social Security account. This document was completed by the person and gives his/her full name, date and place of birth, place of residence, names of parents, occupations, and names of employers. For deaths before 1962, the RootsWeb SSDI site is still a good place to start; click on any person to get the form letter asking for a form SS-5, modify it to fit the person you want, and add more details.

6. PROBATE RECORDS. Details pertaining to a deceased person’s estate may be located in a county courthouse. These records may provide important information about the heirs of the deceased. Probate records may include dockets (court calendars), recorded wills, administrator’s records, inventories of estates, sheriff’s sales, and judgments. Microfilmed probate records for nearly every county in the U.S. are located at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. To find them, go to www.familysearch.org . Do a “place” search for a state, then click on “Review Related Places” to see a list of the counties for that state. The topics listed include probate records, so a review of what records have been filmed can be located quickly.

7. PRIVATE DEATH RECORDS (Insurance Papers, Medical Records, Doctor’s Office Records). If the deceased had insurance, there will be a record of the death within the insurance company’s files, perhaps with information concerning the deceased’s survivors and the disposition of an estate. Hospital records are almost always closed, but a close family member might be able to obtain information. Records at a doctor’s office are usually closed also, but, again, close family members might be given access.

8. CORONER AND MEDICAL EXAMINER RECORDS exist for any person who died under suspicious conditions, any person for whom an autopsy was performed, or, in most cases, for people who died outside of a hospital. Coroner records are public records kept at the county level in virtually all states. In addition to the circumstances of the death, there may be vital details about the deceased. Locating a coroner or medical examiner for a county is not difficult as many have their own websites or are part of a county government website.

9. MEDICAL RECORDS for deceased veterans are public records. The National Archives and Records Administration, National Personnel Records Center (Military Records Facility) is located at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Write for a form SF-80 to request copies from any soldier’s or sailor’s military file. Their online website is www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/index.html. Next-of-kin to a deceased veteran may access data online. Others must use form SF-80 to obtain information about the deceased veteran.

10. CHURCH RECORDS. A death record might be recorded as part of a church’s records in addition to information about a burial. Check www.cyndislist.com under the category “Religion and Church” to survey what is available online.
GO GET THE DEATH RECORDS!

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