Death certificates in genealogy research are popular records to search. Discover the meaning behind seemingly random numbers on those death certificates.
No doubt about it. Death certificates are one of the most sought after genealogical records.
From a death certificate genealogy researchers can learn birth and death dates of an ancestors. We can find information on a spouse and/or the names of the deceased parents. (Admit it – Isn’t that what we are really after!)
But….did you ever notice that number written on the death certificate somewhere around the cause of death?
I’ve seen it on all of my ancestors’ death certificates, but frankly, ignored it. I just assumed it was something to do with a county’s filing system or something along those lines.
I was wrong.
That number written is there for a reason, and can be relevant to you as a family historian. It’s a bit like a secret code, but you need the decoder ring to understand its meaning.
Secret codes? Decoder rings? Stick with me!
What Is The Purpose of the Number On the Death Certificate?
Have you ever tried to read your ancestor’s cause of death and couldn’t because of poor handwriting?
Or perhaps the writer used archaic medical terms you were not familiar with.
The number written on the death certificate is called an ICD number and is a code for an ancestor’s cause of death. ICD stands for International Classification of Diseases.
The ICD code corresponds with a specific cause of death. You can look these up!
This is the 1923 Death Certificate for Esther Talbott. It is full of great genealogy information, but we are interested in in the cause of death section.
Here is the close up look at the cause of death section:
We notice Esther’s cause of death was “pulmonary tuberculosis”. This particular recorder had good penmanship! (Good penmanship seems so rare in genealogy research, doesn’t it?) But what about when you cannot read that cause of death? What if we didn’t know what Esther died of?
The number 31 tells us her cause of death.
First, head over to the International Classification of Diseases website, and find the version corresponding with your ancestor’s date of death. This is the equivalent of the “decoder ring”!
In our example we want to use the Revision 3 (1920).
Here we find 31 stands for “Tuberculosis of the respiratory system” – just what caused Esther’s death. Interestingly enough, Esther’s brother Rueben Richardson also died of TB.
Okay, that’s interesting, but how does that ICD code really help your genealogy research?
Perhaps a better question is:
Why Do You Need to Know Your Ancestor’s Cause of Death?
Knowing an ancestor’s cause of death can give you insight into an early or untimely death. The cause of death can provide clues to other records!
In the case of Esther above, knowing she suffered from TB and knowing that her brother did as well, helped me locate Rueben in Asheville, NC. Why Asheville? A TB sanitorium was located there.
Knowing TB was in the family, led to further research into TB and where people went for treatment. That led to Asheville, NC which led to Rueben and another family member as well.
Does your ancestor’s death certificate indicate he/she died in an unusual way or as the result of a crime? If so, seek out an account of the incident in the newspapers. Seek out court records that were associated with the crime. Do not forget to check out inquest records, too!
Does a health condition run in a family line? Do a disporportionate number of childre in a family line die young? Consider if a genetic component could be involved.
Back To That ICD code…..
I got lucky with both of my great grandmothers’ death certificates above. They are easy to read! Really, a typed record? How easy was that?
We all have instances when we have difficulty deciphering an ancestor’s death certificate, especially the cause of death. Sometimes, the cause is poor handwriting on the physican’s part.
Sometimes, the cause is an archaic medical term we are not familiar with, making it hard to understand.
Poor handwriting AND medical terminology? That’s just plain hard.
That ICD code gives us as reasearchers a quick way to look up what the cause of death was and allows us to move on with our research.
Now It’s Your Turn!
Take a second look at your ancestor’s death certificate. Specifically, look at the cause of death and ICD code. Can you come up with more research leads?
Other Posts of Interest
Are you interested in learning more about your ancestor’s death certificate and other death records? Check out these posts: