Finding an ancestor's death date is usually high on a genealogy researcher's wish list. Here are 7 places to start your search.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

7 Places To Start Finding An Ancestor’s Death Date

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, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch. Birth dates, death dates and a last residence can be found.

Mortality Schedules 

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.

1870  Mortality schedule for Halifax County, VA . Red arrows pointing to entry for Mary Ragland.
The above 1870 US Census Mortality Schedule shows Mary Ragland of Halifax County, VA died in Aug 1869 from typhoid fever.


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

Colored photo of folded newspaper

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! ? ]

Pension Records

Close up of the Revolutionary War Widow's application packet for Rachel Harwood.

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

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.

Orange leaves on tree with bell tower in the background. Blue sky

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:

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:


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  • Michele

    I located my ancestor’s death date in his probate. Orleans Parish in Louisiana did record death certificates for the 1860s, but I my ancestor died during the month New Orleans was captured during the Civil War, and I assume this greatly affected all record-keeping during that period. Love your posts!

    • LisaL

      Michele, you make a good point about record keeping during the Civil War. I think we sometimes forget record keeping can be affected by the circumstances of the day. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Diane

    I have a great aunt who was born in Nebraska in 1872, lived in Rock Springs (Sweetwater county) Wyoming, went to school in Salt Lake City, and became a nun (sister Mary Pius) and last known residence lived in Chicago. Cannot find anything else on her. Do not know death date, convent, church etc. Any suggestions on where to find info on her? Born Sarah Matthews. Father William H. Matthews, Mother Dorothy Aldred Crookston/Matthews.

  • Amberlyn F Calderon

    So, if an ancestor died during the Spanish flu how would you find the death certificate? I have read that at one point so many were dying that there were no records.

    • LisaL

      Check with the county where they died for a possible death certificate. Also, check with them to see if there was anything unusual about the record keeping for those dying during the Spanish Flu epidemic.

  • Janet Kitten

    My 2nd great grandfather died in 1875?. I found the intestate will that his wife had done. The only date on it was 1875. She probated the will in August of 1876.
    Will I need to go to the courthouse of where they lived at that time? I have looked everywhere for his date of death and where he is buried – but I have found nothing.
    They were poor and had 10 acres of land that she sold because they owed on it.
    They lived in Greenvine, Washington, Texas.
    I have checked with the Luthern Churches around that area and there are no records. It’s like he never existed.
    I don’t know where else to look.
    Janet Kitten

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