Are you missing vital clues to your ancestors? Learn how to all the genealogical clues in your ancestor's death certificate .
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Are You Missing Important Genealogy Clues on Your Ancestor’s Death Certificate?

An ancestor’s death certificate provides a wealth of genealogical information. Learn what information you can expect to find on a death certificate.

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.

Are you missing vital clues to your ancestors? Learn how to all the genealogical clues in your ancestor's death certificate . #genealogy #ancestors #familyhistory

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.

Are you missing vital clues to your ancestors? Learn how to all the genealogical clues in your ancestor's death certificate .
1927 Death Certificate of Mattie Maddox Howard

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

Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - top

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.
Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - personal

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.

Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - medical
  • 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.

Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - occuapation

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.

Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - parents

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. 

Genealogy death certificate Mattie Maddox - informant
Informant for Death Certificate of Mattie Maddox Howard

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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  • Carolyn Kopchik

    The number 77 written on death certificate is the death code used in 1920’s for “ unknown type of insanity “. You can look up death codes version used during the year of death and get a little more info.

    • LisaL

      Great question, Nancy! The 77 is an ICD code which corresponds to a cause of death. The ICD -9 code used for this death certificate was the Revision 3 code in use from 1920 – 1929. On that edition of the code, 77 is the code for “other forms of insanity” which fits well with her diagnosis. The ICD codes changed over time, so when looking one up, make sure you have the correct one for the death date.

  • Catherine Lierley

    On the cause of death there is an ICD-9 code, number 77. This stands for sequestrectomy or removal of dead bones. It makes me wonder since she had a type of psychosis, why and where she had dead bones. I enjoy your articles, thank you for providing interesting and helpful information. On a different note, do you have a list for shortened or abbreviated list for names? An example is the christian name of the father

    • LisaL

      Thanks, Catherine for your insight on the ICD-9 code. The ICD -9 code used for this death certificate was the Revision 3 code in use from 1920 – 1929. On that edition of the code, 77 is the code for “other forms of insanity”. That actually fits well with her diagnosis of psychosis. As for the list of names you mentioned, do you mean a list of nicknames?

  • jeanie

    This is excellent and thanks for the glossary of medical issues. I’m pretty good at reading the death certificates but some of the terminology is even tough to google (handwriting, mostly, along with odd names for illnesses.

    Interesting about the mental illness. I learned my great grandfather was in the asylum for 13 years thanks to the word “inmate” in census records and was fortunate to find his commitment papers in Family Search. Three months later and the documents would have been sealed.

  • Carmen

    I have noticed that many (almost 100%) of the North Dakota death certificates are now redacted, which means that there is a paper or block over the COD (cause of death). There are numbers in the margins but they don’t seem to correspond with the ICD list. What am I missing? Does anyone else have this problem? I can understand why they have also blocked the SS number. But why the cause of death. I have been monitoring the amounts and kinds of cancer in my family tree and this really is hampering my research. Thanks for this informative post, it helps very much!

  • Mari

    How do you find a death certificate if your ancestor fell off the face of the earth? (Single female, living with brother, Shelby, Alabama, sometime after 1920 because she is listed there and not in the 1930 one).

  • Carlyn

    I just wanted to let you know, what a wonderful person you are for sharing these tips, tricks and ideas about solving our genealogy problems and info. You a GREAT. Thank you. Carlyn.

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