Death certificates can provide valuable information on your ancestor such as a full name, spouse’s name, parents’ names and more. Be sure to check when the recording of death certificates began in the area you are researching. Do not waste time looking for a death certificate when none were created. In North Carolina, death certificates did not begin until 1909 with a few being found.
Another important point about death certificates needs to be considered. Death certificates are considered secondary sources. In other words, the information provided on the death certificate came from someone else who was reporting facts. This person may or may not have had first hand knowledge about the deceased. The informant could have been a spouse, an adult child, a friend, an in-law or even a medical record.
Detailed Look at a Death Certificate
Note: Information found on a death certificate will vary from state to state, but the basics are the same.
Let’s take a closer look at the death certificate above. This records the 1929 death of Emma Thomas Howard of Lee County, North Carolina. Emma Howard was the grandmother of Lester Howard whose birth certificate we examined closely.
Name: Emma Dell Howard —> The full name is often stated.
Address —–> This provides a place and a time for your ancestor.
Gender and Race —-> Emma was a white female
Spouse —-> A. S. Howard [Allen Suggs Howard] was Emma’s husband.
Date of Birth —-> 25 May 1858 – This provides a clue for where to find other records on Emma.
Age at Death —-> 71 years, 2 months and 25 days (It is so nice when they do the math for you!)
Place of Birth —-> Moore County, NC – This location will give clues where to start looking for other family members as well.
Occupation—-> Emma was a housewife. For males, knowing their occupation can lead to other clues on their location or records in professional organizations.
Father’s Name and Place of Birth —-> In Emma Howard’s case, her father was not known, at least publicly. Emma was born out of wedlock. When the father’s name is known, the researcher can progress back a generation.
Mother’s Name and Place of Birth —–> Jane Thomas was Emma’s mother. Prior to her marriage, Emma’s maiden name was Emma Thomas. (This information was from the family Bible and was not gleaned from her death certificate.) With an “unknown father” and having her mother’s maiden name, this is consistent with the family’s oral history of Emma being illegitimate.
Informant —-> A. S. Howard. Pay attention to the informant. Know his or her relationship to the deceased. In this case, the informant is Emma’s husband. Since he would have known her and her family well the information is considered strong.
Death Date —-> 10 August 1929 at 6:30pm. This places Emma at a specific point in time and place.
Cause of Death —–> Emma was not seen by a physician in her last days. Most likely she died from bronchospasm. The cause of death can be very informative about your ancestor and the the family. Read more about your ancestor’s “medical genealogy”.
Place of Burial —–> Baptist Chapel, Sanford, NC. If the location is not too far, you can visit and search for the gravestone. Look for who else is buried close by. You may find other family members. In the case of Emma Howard, many Howard relatives and generations are buried there. It turns out the land for the church and its cemetery were part of the Howard family farm.
Undertaker —–> Knowing the undertaker and/or funeral home handling the deceased can lead you to possible funeral home records.
Physician’s signature and address —> Leon Watson. This is the same physician who attended the birth of James Lester Howard, the birth certificate we looked at previously. Local historical societies occasionally have physician records in their archives. Keep this information in the back of your mind. In future research, physician records may hold clues to other family members as well.
Finding Other Death Records
You cannot find your ancestor’s death certificate? Try these other death record sources.
- Family Bibles
- Church Records – Look for baptism records in the family’s church.
- Newspapers -Obituaries are commonly found in newspapers.
- Church periodicals
- Funeral Home Records
- Sexton Records
Remember: Just as with the birth record, ask yourself what other records about this individual/family does the death record point to. For example, this death certificate states Emma Howard’s husband was A. S. Howard. This should prompt a search for their marriage certificate in Moore County (Lee County was not formed until 1907) and surrounding counties.