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Nineteen Kinds of Death Records and Their Uses

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.

Death records

Examples of death certificates and obituary


Death Certificates

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, FamilyLink 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 FamilyLink.

Other Sources

Church records often include deaths and burials.

Obituaries

Example of newspaper obituaries

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 FamilyLink (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 FamilyLink.)

Death dates listed in Roll of Honor, Nos. VII-X. U.S. Quartermaster's Dept. (1866).

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.

Duplicate!

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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17 Responses to “Nineteen Kinds of Death Records and Their Uses”

  1. D. A. Eaton says:

    need info on adam bush, carbondale , pa

  2. How can I find death records in
    France – birth information
    EFHaag

  3. I am looking for my Husband JERRY IVAN MARTIN Born 23/06/1942 in possibly Sequoiya USA
    He left South Africa in 2006 and we lost contact about 2/3 years ago. The last I heard he was battling cancer of the throat.
    His Mother’s maiden name was Childers and when widowed she married Earl Morrison.
    His mother moved to Broken Arrow Oklahoma and he was living in Wagoner on Lake Fort Gibson.
    He has a brother Richard Martin who is younger than Jerry.

  4. David says:

    For Australians use the National Library Free Website called “Trove” to find thousands of digitised newspaper entries with deaths and obituaries, not to mention marriages and births. The digitisation is not perfect, but you can search text, you can read the original and you can even login, allowing you to edit poorly digitised entries. Newspapers exist from every State and territory – you can find entries roughly from 1800-1954, some later, and the database is being continuously updated.

    And its Free.

  5. David says:

    Australian Death Certificates usually give:
    Name, Date of Death, Place of death, Age, Gender, Cause of death, Drs Name, When Dr last saw patient, Parents Names, Fathers occupation, Mothers maiden name, Informant, When buried, Where buried, Officiating Minister, Denomination, Witnesses to burial, When married, Where married, How long in Australia, Living Children’s Names and Ages, Number of deceased children with gender.

  6. David says:

    Births, Deaths and Marriages in Australia:
    In New south Wales and Queensland the indexes are free to search, there is a charge in other States
    Note that Queensland indexes give the full date of death, but are vague on the place of death
    Whereas New South Wales indexes are clear on the place of death but give only the year of death

  7. Daniel Francsics says:

    To whom it may concern,
    I am looking for my fathers family the family name is Francsics in exact Hungarian spelling some people in the family might go by Francis, my father was from Budapest ,Hungary and is a middle child out of 8 siblings of 3 boys and 5 girls to a mother named Maria Francsics and father Martin Anton Francsics . My fathers name in Hungarian is Ferencz Francsics, friends called him frank… He sadly past away in 1990 of early November leaving a wife and three kids behind, I am the babyboy of his next of kin. To a message going out not knowing if will ever be heard of a long lost family whom I never had a chance to meet, his brother Steve Francis or Stephan Francis aunt Elizabeth,Helen,katlyn,Catherine and Theresa. He had a older brother named Leslie whom died as a young man. This is a shot into the dark with only nothing but faith it reaches to the right person otherwise nothing more can change. Their is a side to me a wish I knew I part of me that come from a Magyar tribe that been broken down, lost people to a lovable family Maria and Martin Francsics had and that I honor through God, this is a matter in Gods hands that his children won’t be lost without a family and heritage what makes who we are and that one day can be restored, for broken hearts to finally mend and for reuniting lost family. Blessings too all!

  8. neal koslow says:

    need to find death of 1 person (date) ThANKs

  9. Would like to find information and death record of my Grandfather who lived in Wanganui or Bulls, New Zealand, thanks, Karl Astley Gedge

  10. william lucas cain says:

    I want to locate the grave of my Grandfather

  11. Lois Eitemiller Olson says:

    I would like to find the obit and burial of John Scott Eitemiller. B 1851 in Fulton Co Penn. D 1908 Council bluff Neb Pottawattomie co. Married 1870 divorced in 1890 remarried.

  12. Lois Eitemiller Olson says:

    very good information Lois Olson

  13. pat doyle says:

    I am looking for the birth place and burial of my grandfather Amity William McDonald. He was born in Illinois don’t know what city. Died in Chillicothe, Ill dob 1885, died sometime after 1971. Thank you

  14. Monica Cattmull says:

    I am trying to locate a Will for an ancestor who died in 1689. I doubt if he was out of England as he held considerable property in Oxfordshire. I have tried all the usual places, but would be rather surprised if he didn’t leave a Will.

  15. Ana Haglund says:

    I like to find my grandfather grave I only know that he was in the Army 33 infantery ans I never know him either my mother who he left whwn she was a baby in Panama in 1922, he Name Alfred Charles Smith,

  16. Am looking for the name Vitanova, in Czechoslovakia.

  17. Looking for the name Brucek, in Czechoslovakia

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