Color photo of white church with old cemetery in front and blue sky
Genealogy Research

Overcome NOT Finding Your Ancestor’s Date of Death

Struggling to find an ancestor’s date of death? Overcome obstacles to your genealogy research to grow your family tree.

Searching for an ancestor’s date of death is one of the first things genealogy researchers do.  But why is finding that date of death so hard, and are researchers creating your own genealogy brick walls?

Let’s talk about our ancestor’s date of death. It is a vital piece of information we use in our genealogy research, but can be unexpectedly hard to find. 

Why is that?

Your Ancestor Did Not Die Where You Expected.

You may be missing out on your ancestor’s death date because he/she did not die where you expected. When this happens, check neighboring counties and even states for a possible death record. This is especially important if your ancestors lived close to a county or state line.

An ailing ancestor may have been cared for in a family member’s home in a neighboring county. Add searching for a death record where the relatives lived to your list.

Consider women giving birth. They also may have gone to stay with family elsewhere for the end of the pregnancy and delivery. Check for death records in the locations where family lived.

Your Ancestor’s Death Record Does Not Exist.

Another reason you may struggle finding that death date is you are looking for a death record that never existed.

I often hear readers tell me they cannot find a death certificate for their ancestors. 

Death certificates are relatively new records from a genealogy perspective. Many states did not even start recording deaths until well into the 1900’s.  For example, an ancestor dying in NC in 1901 will not have a death certificate. The state did not issue death certificates until 1913. There is no need to search for this.

Other records will need to be used to find that date of death. Look for obituaries, church records, local death records and the mortatility schedules.

Old Black and white cemetery. Red box with white text reading your Ancestor's Date of Death
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Overlooking The  Mortality Schedules of 1850-1880

Are you overlooking the Mortality Schedules of the 1850 – 1880 US censuses?

The mortality schedules recorded individuals who died in the 12 months previous to the census date. Notice this is not the calendar year. If the census date was June 1, 1870, the the mortality schedule for that year covers June 2, 1869 – May 31, 1870.

You will not get the day of death, but often the month is given, as well as the cause of death, person’s age and even occupation. The information does vary from year to year, but is valuable to your research.

Mortality schedules can be especially interesting as they record all ethnicities. Additionally, hard to find ancestors such as children and women can be found here, too.

Relying on Tombstone Transcriptions

Cemetery research is quite helpful in discovering an ancestor’s date of death. However, this can be problematic if you are not viewing the actual tombstone or a good quality photograph of the tombstone. Reviewing on a transcription of a tombstone only can lead to mistakes.

Always attempt to verify the accuracy of a transcription. This applies to tombstones and any genealogy record you might use.

Depending on the tombstone’s condition, your ancestor’s date of death may be difficult to read. When this happens, I take or obtain the best photograph of the stone possible. Then I use a photo-editing software to adjust the photo’s shadows, contrast, etc to get a readable date. 

In case you are wondering, I use Vivid-Pix Restore for this.

The Spelling of Your Ancestor’s Name

You are spelling your ancestor’s name wrong…or right.

The spelling of your ancestor’s name can be a cause for not finding any type of record and should not be overlooked in the search for death records and dates, too.

The spelling of names did not become standardized until well in the 1900’s. Spelling variations – and even name changes – happened easily and for a variety of reasons.

For genealogy research purposes, a “correct” spelling is not that important.

Let’s not tell the school children this! We could get in trouble. 😊

Keep a list of the name spelling variations for your ancestors to use in your search of the records. Additionally, use wildcard searches in the databases as well.

A wildcard search is where you substitute one or more letters in your ancestor’s name with an * . This tells the search engine you are not sure of the letters that go here and a wider range of results is returned. This allows you the researcher to find spellings and transcription results you may not have thought of previously.

Learn more about wildcard searches in this video:

Not finding your ancestor’s date of death can be frutstrating for any genealogy researcher. After all, it is an important piece of their story. If you are still struggling to find that death date, consider if one of the reasons is listed above. Re-examine your research and the records with a fresh eye.

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