An ancestor’s death certificate is one of the first death records genealogy researchers seek out. After all, establishing birth, marriage and death dates is a good place to start your genealogy research.
When you find that ancestor’s death certificate, are you finding all the genealogy clues that are presented? Or do you record the ancestor’s name, death date and place of death and then move on?
As with any genealogical record, spend time with the document. We are going to explore the types of genealogy information and clues you can find on a death certificate below.
Before we examine this death record up close, let’s talk about where to find death certificates.
Where To Find An Ancestor’s Death Certificate
One thing to remember as you seek out your ancestor’s death certificate is that death certificates are a relatively modern record. For example, the use of death certificates in North Carolina began in 1913, though full compliance was not achieved until several years later.
Determine when death certificates began being used in the state where your ancestor lived. Don’t waste time seeking one out if it never existed. You will need to use other records to find that death date.
To order a death certificate, typically you will need to contact the state or county records office where the death occurred. A fee is usually charged and some type of identification is usually required.
Each state has it own privacy laws surrounding the release of its citizens’ vital records, so your ability on which ancestors you can obtain a death certificate can vary from state to state.
Tip: Check the state’s vital records home page to find their policies on the release of death certificates.
Now let’s take a close up look at what types of information you can expect to find on a death certificate.
5 Types of Genealogical Info Found on a Death Certificate[The 1927 North Carolina death certificate of Mattie Maddox Howard will be used as an example.]
1. Personal (Vital) Information on the Deceased
Finding the deceased’s personal information is to be expected. You can expect to find:
- Name of deceased – Mrs. Mattie V. Howard [nee Mattie Maddox]
- Last known address – State Hospital, Raleigh NC
- Place of death – Raleigh, Wake County, NC
- Birth Date – Not provided in this instance; Age 45
- Birth Place – Chatham County, NC
- Occupation – Inmate
- Spouse’s name (if married/widowed) – Spouse not named, but she is married.
In the case of Mattie Maddox Howard, she was a married white female aged 45 at the time of her death. From this information I can infer a birth year.
Mattie’s husband is not named, but she was married at the time of death. From this, I can initiate a marriage record search.
You’ve no doubt noticed Mattie’s “occupation” is listed as inmate. I’ll address that down below.
Make note of any missing information on a death certificate to follow up on later.
2. Death Information of the Deceased
The medical section will provide your ancestor’s date of death and the information about the cause of death. You will be able to see if your ancestor had a long illness or if they died due to an accident. If you find your ancestor died due to an accident or under unusual circumstances, that’s your clue to seek out newspaper articles about the event.
- Death Date – 30 July 1927
- Place of Burial – Lee County, NC – Often the place of burial will name a specific cemetery or even name a family cemetery. In that case, you will be able to place your ancestor’s gravestone on the map. This is also you clue to seek out specific cemetery records.
- Cause of death – See Health History below.
- Funeral Home – Knowing which funeral home handled your ancestor’s death, can lead you the researcher to explore funeral home records for more clues on the deceased family.
3. Health History
In the medical cause of death section, you will find the cause of death and also often see if an ancestor had other contributing factors to their death. While this will not provide genealogical information, it can give you clues to the family’s health history and if certain illnesses or conditions run in the family.
The cause of death for our ancestors can easily be something we are not familiar with. We often find archaic medical terms listed on older death certificates or in the newspapers. This list of 18th and 19th century medical diagnoses will help your understanding of those unusual and out of date diagnoses.
In Mattie Maddox Howard’s case, she died of “Exhaustion and Psychosis of Type Undetermined”. Pretty vague, right? Based on oral history surround the time of Mattie illness and death, today’s generations believe she likely died of a brain tumor.
4. Occupation of the Deceased
Learning the occupation can lead you to other clues about them as well. Fortunately, for genealogy researchers, the death certificate does provide that information. Read Why Your Ancestor’s Occupation Matters To Your Genealogy Research to learn more about researching an ancestor’s occupation.
When a deceased’s occupation is listed as “inmate” you want to follow up on that. In Mattie’s case, inmate meant she was a patient at the state’s hospital for the mentally ill. Unfortunately, those records are not available for research in North Carolina. Privacy laws vary from state to state on access to these types of records after a certain number of years.
Should the ancestor you are researching be listed as inmate in a jail, you know to seek out the jail records.
5. Extended Family Information
Family information is perhaps the second main reason (other than the death date) researchers turn to death certificates. When known and filled out, the deceased’s parents are listed – including maiden names for the mother! Place of birth is also listed helping to set a location for future research.
Is the Information on a Death Certificate Always Correct?
No, not always.
Like many other documents genealogists come across, the death certificate can (and often does) contain errors.
Knowing who provided the information recorded on the death certificate is important.
Often the person was a close family member, but not always. In the example of Mattie Maddox Howard’s death certificate, information from the records of the State Hospital [Dorothea Dix Hospital] served as the informant.
The informant may be providing information about the deceased based on their own memory or the memory of others. Grief and stress may cloud one’s memory during this time. Information may be missing on the death certificate because the informant simply did not know the answer.
Look back at your ancestors’ death certificates in your files. What new clues for your research to you find?
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