Finding an ancestor’s death date is usually high on a genealogy researcher’s wish list. Often that death date can be difficult to track down – especially as we go further back in history.
Why do genealogy researchers have trouble finding an ancestor’s death date?
Well, several reasons…..
- Researchers may be searching for a death record that does not exist. Formal death certificates are fairly “modern” records, so searching for a death certificate for an ancestor who died in 1860 is a wasted search.
- Researchers may not understand the county/state boundaries or geographical region where an ancestor lived. If an ancestor lived close to a state or county dividing line, he/she may have died and been buried in the neighboring county or state. Formal death records were usually created in the county/state the death occurred.
- We simply have no idea where start the search! If you have an ancestor who was moving locations frequently or generated few records, knowing where to start the search for information on an ancestor’s death is the challenge.
Where do genealogy researchers start the search for an ancestor’s death date?
Vital Records – The Death Certificate
Death certificates are relatively “new” records. Many states did not start to use death certificates until the 1900’s. As a researcher you do not have to go too far back in time for an ancestor not to have a death certificate.
When you find a death certificate for your ancestor, keep in mind who was providing the information, particularly the personal information. Look at the informant listed on the death certificate. Personal information on the deceased is provided by the informant. Sometimes the informant knew the answer (or thought they knew!) and sometimes, they did not.
Know who the informant was in relationship to the deceased. Was the informant a reliable source for the information?
The medical information on the deceased was provided by a doctor.
SSDI – Social Security Death Index
The SSDI is current through 2011, but due to identity theft concerns updates are no longer being made. Limited information is available, but the SSDI can be found on Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch. Birth dates, death dates and a last residence can be found.
These often forgotten census schedules may hold the clue to your ancestor’s death date. From 1850-1880 mortality schedules recorded those individuals who died in the preceding 12 months. Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota created mortality schedules for 1885.
What genealogist doesn’t enjoy a research trip to the family cemetery? [My kids really think I’m crazy because of this!]
Tombstones are considered to be secondary sources of information. They can and do (at times) have mistakes. The information on a tombstone was provided after the your ancestor’s death (obviously!) and usually by a family member. A tombstone may not be placed until years after your ancestor’s death. The information on dates and even name spellings is usually accurate, but is only as accurate as the person’s knowledge of the family history.
Newspapers & Obituaries
Obituaries are a common resource genealogists pursue for an ancestor’s death information. For more recent generations, check family Bibles, family scrapbooks and the “keepsake” box under the bed. Family members would often cut an obituary out of the paper and tuck it somewhere for safe keeping.
Searching for obituaries will necessitate you delving into newspaper research. Don’t forget to check religious newspapers and periodicals of your ancestor’s faith.
Newspapers are also a good source of information on an ancestor’s death if unusual circumstances surrounded his/her death. Also, if your ancestor was a prominent person in the community, more information surrounding their death may appear in the newspaper(s).
I am going to make a confession here…..I have always sort of dreaded newspaper research! I know, that’s a bad thing for a genealogist, right?! I have definitely come around, though. It only took one tiny obituary in a Methodist periodical to break open a genealogy brick wall to convert me. Newspaper research is still not my favorite, but I absolutely jump into it! [Whew, confession is good for the soul! ? ]
If your ancestor received a military pension or his widow applied for a military pension, the death date may be found. For example, if a soldier died, then a note on his pension record will indicate when the payments stopped. If the widow applied for her deceased husband’s benefits, she had to prove her husband was dead.
Church records can be a rich source of genealogical information – including death records- in counties where many local records have been lost. I strongly recommend you research what types of records your ancestor’s faith community kept prior to starting your search. Record keeping varies greatly from church to church.
Don’t overlook church histories and church directories. These both have information on the church’s community and potentially information on previous generations.
For more on church records, check out these previous posts:
- Finding NC Baptist Church Records
- Finding Methodist Church Records
- Using A Written Church History in Your Genealogy Research
One last thing to consider….
Your ancestor’s death date may not be explicitly stated in a particular source (or any source).
Sometimes the best you can find is a “died before ______” in which you find the probate date of his/her estate but not the actual date he/she died. Or you might find the date an obituary was published, but not the actual date of death stated. You know the date was close and can often infer a month and a year. That’s still great progress!
Other posts of interest:
- What is that Family Cemetery Really Telling You?
- Your Ancestors + Medical Genealogy (Yes! Your ancestor’s medical history can give you clues to follow up on!)
- How To Research Your Ancestor’s Estate Record
- 5 Types of Genealogical Info Found on a Death Certificate
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