Meet Reuben Richardson.
Reuben lived his entire life in Pittsylvania and Halifax Counties, Va. and died in 1917. Oral history reported Reuben died in the First World War. Family history supported that. The few records he appeared in supported the fact, but none actually proved his death date or place of death. A death certificate was no where to be found,
So, why could I not find evidence of his death?
As a new genealogy researcher, I put too much faith in my family’s knowledge of events no one living today had first hand knowledge.
As an experienced researcher, I know to question anything that is not supported by the records. I knew I had to move the search beyond traditional sources if an ancestor’s death date.
Jumping to the end of the story, Reuben did die in 1917, but not in the war. He died in NC where he was being treated for TB. Unfortunately, he would not be the last in the family to die from that disease.
Where should a genealogy researcher look for evidence of a death date for an ancestor? And what does a researcher do when those records fail to produce the death information.
Why You Are Not Finding Your Ancestor’s Date of Death?
You may not be finding the date of death for your ancestor not because you are doing something wrong in your research, but because you are not going far enough in your research.
Where to Start the Search for Your Ancestor’s Death Record
Start your search for death information in traditional genealogy records.
Include in your search:
- The Death certificate – Before spending too much time on searching for a death certificate, make sure death certificates were being issued for that time period. For example, death certificates were it issued in NC until 1913. For ancestors who died prior to that year, there is no need to search for one. Keep in mind when evaluating your ancestor’s death certificate that the biographical information can be inaccurate based on who was providing the information. Was the informant someone who had good knowledge of the deceased.
- Gravestone – Gravestones can be an obvious source for your ancestor’s date of death. Typically, the dates listed are fairly good, but mistakes do -and did- happen. Gravestones could be expensive and might have been placed a significant time period after the death. Memories fade, inaccuracies happened. Today’s researcher can use sites such as FindAGrave , BillionGraves or Cemetery Census to find photos of ancestors’ gravestones. This is fine for reading the stones, but be careful about any extra genealogical information that may be posted on those sites – just like you would be careful of any unsourced information on someone else’s family tree. Verify any information for yourself. (I’m stepping off my soapbox now.)
- Family Bible – The Family Bible is a bit like the holy grail for the genealogy researcher. The birth, marriage and death dates listed are invaluable. Check within your family for it, but also check the state archives. Many have ongoing digitization projects that include Family Bibles. Check back periodically for updates.
- Oral History – In the story of Reuben above, oral history failed me. Or did it? Examining oral history for clues to a death date is absolutely fine. Holding too tightly to the oral history as fact will cause problems in your research.
- Wills and Estate Records – Wills and estate records should absolutely be analyzed for a death date and place of death. Typically, the county and state of death are known since that is how the records are organized. Finding a specific death date in the will or estate records is not always easy. For instance, you may know the date a will was written and the date it was probated. That gives you a date range for the individuals death, but not the exact date. Additionally, a significant amount of time may have passed between the writing of the will, the actual death and the probate of the will.
- Church Records – Church records can be a source for finding death dates as well. Catholic parish records provide a rich source for birth, marriage and death dates of an ancestor. The Catholic Heritage Collection at FindMyPast is a great resource for both U.S. and UK parish records. Other church records may not be quite as helpful. For example, Methodist and Baptists did not typically record death dates of its members. Another source of “church records” would be religious periodicals such as newsletters and church newspapers.
Sources For Date of Death Records When Traditional Genealogy Records Fail You
You’ve explored all of the usual sources for your ancestor’s death date and come up a empty.
It’s time to shift your research focus to lesser used records for sources of that death date. Many of these are common records used in genealogy research, but not so much when it comes to looking death information.
- Military records – If your ancestor was in the military, seek out his or her service records. Potentially, you will find a death date on a military pension record when the veteran dies and is no longer receiving his pension. Additionally, check for a widow’s pension application and record. Her husband’s death date may well be specifically stated. Did your ancestor die in a war? Seek out the service record.
- Newspapers – Read all about it in the newspaper. At least that’s what we hope to be able to do. Printed obituaries in the newspaper have been around for a long time’ especially for prominent individuals. In general, obituaries and death announcements in the newspapers did not become common until the mid-1800’s.
- Funeral homes records – Check local funeral home records for information in your ancestors.
- Sexton records – Check sexton records (sometimes called cemetery records) for death and burial information on your ancestor. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how helpful cemetery office staff has been when I reached out.
- Church or faith records – Certain faiths and denominations kept good records of baptisms, marriages and death/burials. Seek those out, but also look for church newsletters from that time period. Lists of members who had passed away are often listed. These may only narrow down the date of death for you , but narrowing a date is good, too.what is that list of dead in the Jewish heritage.
- The Mortality Schedules of 1850-1880 – Often overlooked, the mortality schedules taken alongside the population censuses of 1850-1880 are excellent sources not to be missed. These schedules enumerate individuals who died in the 12 month’s preceding the census. Additional information about an ancestor’s cause of death can be found.
- City Directories – You are not going to find a specific death date for your ancestor in a city directory, but you can narrow down a death year. Track your ancestor through the city directory year by year. You will notice when he no longer appears in the directory. He could have moved or he could have died. Take it a step further and see if his widow starts appearing in the directory. This indicates the individual died in the previous year. Learn more about using city directories HERE.