Your Guide to Finding An Ancestor’s Date of Death
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.
Both of my grandmothers have the wrong birth year on their grave stones. One by a year, the other by 12 years! I don’t use grave stone birth information. It’s too often wrong. I will try to find a birth for that date but if I don’t find it, I don’t keep trying.
Toni, you are right. Those tombstones can have significant errors. Using other records to support the information is important.
I totally agree with your soapbox statement for today. My father is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Evansville, Indiana. I have put the information on Find a Grave. Someone stole the information along with the photo of the tombstone and posted in Billion Graves. The problem is that whoever did it put it in the wrong cemetery in the wrong city and state. I informed the person and Billion Graves a few years ago, but nothing has changed. So my advice is to make sure you verify ALL the information on these websites.
Nancy, I’ll happily share my soap box. 🙂
If you are looking for a Family Bible, try either your local Daughters of the American Revolution chapters or the National organization. I know my chapter tries to copy the bibles and put the copy in our National library. This way the bible data is available for everyone, and the bible is left with the family.
I know DAR does this, but you might check with any lineage societies.
That’s a great tip, Carol. Thanks!
Does this apply to foreign countries..my family from grandparents on up are from Germany and the surrounding countries
Joann, the principles will apply to other countries, but the name of the records may be a bit different.
My ancestry is Swedish and the Swedish records are excellent unless a fire or other disaster destroyed the paper record. The existing records have been scanned and are online, some available for free, others through pay sites. To use them requires learning a few words of Swedish but these are mostly terms like birth, death, some causes of death, etc. One can use an online translation. And they include occupations of heads of the household. Problems arise when your ancestor’s record was destroyed in a fire or other calamity, or there is mold or an ink blot over the information you need, etc. The records also include occupations of household head, places moved to or from, etc.
I’ve heard Swedish records were good. They sound wonderful!
Good article, but…I’ve done all this in a search for my Grandfather and still come up empty. To my best knowledge, he died sometime after 1949 in Massachusetts. I can not find a record on Find A Grave nor the other sites mentioned in this article. I can’t find an obituary in the newspaper sites either. It’s as though he just disappeared without a trace. He married his third wife in 1949 and she died after the marriage in 1949. As far as I know he was still alive when she died. I also am not able to find a burial for her or an obituary. I need suggestions as to what I should do now.
Check out if tax records are available for your grandfather. You can sometimes determine an approximate death date when one drops off the tax list. You may also need to broaden your search for a death certificate to other counties and/or states.
I have been trying to find one of my husband’s great great grandmother’s death date. I finally found in the County Deed records no less where her children sold land that they had inherited from her after she died.
So I know she died before February of 1915 when they sold the land. I know she died after 1913 when she and her second husband purchased said the land.
I did not find probate records for her, or a will.
I still have not been able to find a death record for her, or even know where she is buried.
Her death is a mystery.
Hmmm…. definitely a mystery. If the children inherited the land there should have been a probate record of some sort. It’s possible those records did not survive for that location.
If there was a probate record, it’s not in the right place. I searched the probate records index for the county where she lived and died, but there was no mention of her under any of her last names. I even skimmed the probate record books for her in 1914 to see if I could find her, but no luck.
Her second husband died in 1916 and his probate record is indexed. I have read through it to see if it mentioned her, but it did not, so I knew she had probably died. Then I found the Deed record and that helped narrow down her death more.
My hope is to eventually go to the county courthouse and see what I can find in person.
Sounds like you are doing all the right thing. I agree a trip to the county courthouse is the next step.
I’ve found at least one death record in a deed. Also, some cities kept death records before the states imposed a requirement. I found a death record in Mansfield, Ohio, for my GG grandmother, who died in 1862. To add to that joy, there was a comment added by the clerk, “Truly a pious woman”. That was genealogy gold!
As an adopted family oral history does not exist and the family was poor, day lanorers, farm help, milk workers. Any suggestions on how to find information?
These are definitely the tough ones! Depending on the location, you might try tracking them through directories so see when they stopped appearing. If they worked on larger farms or plantations, check things like plantation records for evidence of your ancestors. You may not find a specific date, but you may be able to narrow it down.
Great article! I am looking for the death date of my 2nd great grandfather. I found records of him and his family landing in Galveston, TX, in 1867. Also found records of him buying land in 1870-1871 in Washington County, TX. No records found in the US Evangelical Church records but I did find one of his daughter’s death in there.
I found his intestate will executed by his wife. But, the only date given of his death is 1875 in Washington County, TX.
She executed the will in August of 1876.
So, I have been searching for a while now. Looking in and around Brenham, Washington, TX and surrounding areas.
So, I have decided that maybe this summer I will head to Brenham, TX, and do some researching down there myself.
I don’t know what else to do. You can only do so much on the internet.
I have spent years searching for anything that will give me the death date for my gggrandfather. His tombstone says “July 1921” no date. He is buried in the family cemetery on family owned land. No one alive remembers when he died. There is no death certificate, no obituary, no church records, no probate records or anything else that might fill in the blank. He lived and died in Hawkins County, TN and left a wife and several minor children. Rumor says he died of measles and I have even tried to find any indication that there was a measles outbreak in the area during 1921. I’m stuck and always looking for new ideas of things to check.