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How Our Ancestors Died

Editor’s Note: The following article is written by author Dr. Terrence Punch. His work includes multiple volumes on Irish immigration to Atlantic Canada, Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada, Volumes I-III, North America’s Maritime FunnelThe Ships that Brought the Irish, 1749-1852 and Montbeliard Immigration to Nova Scotia, 1749-1752. Dr. Punch has authored other articles we’ve shared on this blog including Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part I and Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, Part II. He can also be heard as a resident genealogist on CBC Radio. 

In this article, “What Our Ancestors Died Of,” Dr. Punch shares tips on how to identify how our ancestors died when the causes can be mislabeled or unclear. This piece contains a list of frequently seen causes of death, and what they actually mean, as well as additional resources to help you on your search. 

Some genealogists collect only ancestors, that is, people from whom they are personally descended. When traced out on a sheet of paper or a spreadsheet you often have a pattern resembling an inverted Christmas tree, wide at the top and pointed at the bottom. Others take a great deal of trouble to track down collateral relatives, the siblings of ancestors and their descendants. If they began with a couple of progenitors, the result will tend to spread more widely with the passing of the generations.

This is not always the case. One couple had eleven children, sixteen grandchildren, but just four great-grandchildren, all four of whom grew to adulthood, two of them married and none of them had children. Within three generations a large family had completely died out. Imagine the original matriarch, dying in 1883 leaving eight children and nine grandchildren, and in 2003 her last descendant died, childless.

One of the reasons why people try to compile genealogies linking collateral relatives as well as direct ancestors is to produce a health history of their wider family circle. They ask questions about age at death, causes of death, conditions that appeared to run in the family, handicaps, tendency to accidents and mishaps, even towards suicide. Continue reading…

Death Records

Death Records: Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Own

Editor’s Note: William Dollarhide knows how to organize, manage and execute a genealogy project. His tricks, rules and witty tips provide valuable guidance to genealogy researchers at all levels. Following are his ten documents every genealogist should own and tips on where to find them:

Go Get the Death Records!

A death certificate is not enough, and it might not even be correct. If you know a person’s exact date and place of death, then you have several more sources pertaining to a person’s death. If you can obtain these other death records, you will certainly learn more about your ancestors.

Here are ten places to look for a death record. All ten sources should be obtained for every ancestor on your pedigree chart and every member of a family on your family group sheet.

1. Death Certificates. A rule in genealogy is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals. That means you need to obtain genealogical sources for all of them. For instance, for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every brother or sister of an ancestor, you need to obtain a death certificate (assuming they are dead). If there were six siblings in an ancestor’s 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, for example, a sibling’s death certificate might give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the vitalrec.com site, where detailed information about accessing death records can be found. It is a free-access website, and all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories or possessions are represented. Always start with a death certificate because the names, dates, and places you will find on a death certificate will lead you to further records.

2. Funeral Records. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. Find a current funeral home in North America at www.funeralnet.com. This site has the listings from a directory of funeral homes called “The Yellow Book.” 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 can be found here as well. Generally, funeral directors are very easy to talk to and very cooperative. Even if the old name of a funeral home is not listed in a current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. Funeral homes rarely go out of business but, more often, are taken over by another funeral director. If at one time a town had two or three funeral homes, but only one today, the “Yellow Book” listing is still the source for finding the current funeral home in that town because it can lead you to information about the older funeral home. 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, that cemetery is now a source of information about the person who died. There may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery, or off-site at a caretaker’s home; and 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 at least know who might be the keeper of records for the cemetery. At the same time, ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers/stone masons who cater to cemeteries in the area. As a back-up, 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 (USGS) within their 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. Visit the GNIS website and click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery. Continue reading…