title image with death certificate for esther talbott
Genealogy Resources

How To Easily Discover The Hidden Meaning Behind The Numbers On Death Certificates

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?

Mattie Maddox death certificate
1927 Death Certificate for Mattie Maddox Howard

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.

ICD code on death certificate
Close-up of ICD Code

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.

Esther Talbott Death Certificate
1923 Death Certificate for Esther Talbott

Here is the close up look at the cause of death section:

Esther Talbott Death Certificate

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”!

ICD codes

In our example we want to use the Revision 3 (1920).

1920 icd codes

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! 

Missouri Inquest Index
Sample Inquest Entry from Missouri State Archives Index

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.

pin for numbers on ancestors death certificate
Pin for Future Reference!

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?

Are you interested in learning more about your ancestor’s death certificate and other death records? Check out these posts:

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  • Fran Grohoski

    I found this interesting about the numbers on the death certif. I pulled out copies of my relatives. Only one had a number listed for cause of death. This was a death in 1926 from an accidental fall. — something I already knew. All the other death certif. from 1950 to present don’t list numbers for anything — not death or occupation or anything else.
    I was also wondering about the numbers listed under things like “Trade or occupation” my copy of the death certif. does have the trade listed so I did use that.

  • Joanne

    I have been wanting to figure out how to access inquest reports as I have a few people whose death certificates only say “Inquest Pending” with no cause of death.

  • Peggy

    I clicked on the above link which took me to http://www.wolfbane.com/icd/
    I know this will be very helpful and will be one that I refer to when I can’t read the cause of death. I shared this with three of my relatives who, like me, have problems trying to determine cause of death at times.
    I thank you for sharing all of your tips and look forward to receiving them.

  • Shawna

    Did they quit writing those numbers on the DCs at some point? After reading your article I immediately pulled out my father and mother’s BCs. They died 10 months apart in 1979. There were no numbers on either one.

  • Jim Jones

    I have a 1951 Missouri Death Cert in which field 24a for “Burial, Cremation, Remove (Specify)” shows “REMOVAL, 5” that was typed in. I want to know what this means, especially the 5 if it is a code for the reason for removal. The funeral director who signed the certificate was near where the death occured in the K.C. Missouri area and a the cemetery listed on the form was 2 hours north, in Iowa; but I am pretty sure I have seen BURIAL typed in on other certificates for people he died in Missouri and were buried in Iowa.

    • LisaL

      Jim, that is interesting. I suggest you contact the vital records dept of the county or of Missouri and ask them. It might be a code that is specific to Missouri. I have not seen that before.

  • Diane

    My 2x Gt. Grandfather was born Illegitimately. He was present with his unmarried mother in 1841 census age 4. in 1851 census he was with an older couple and he was raised by them, a childless couple. I have found no proof of adoption. In his guardian father.s Will, he left it worldly goods to his son (my 2xGt. grandfather), with the understanding that he will care for his 90 year old wife at the farm until her death. On my 2x Gt. grandfathers marriage certificate, he used his mother’s name and added his guardians name and used that double barrelled name all his life. His children were all named after his guardian father. when his birth mother died, he was present at her death and on the death certificate the double barrelled name was crossed out, leaving only the mother’s surname and 8 (eight) written beside it. Does anyone know what that means and if I can find out from the Register Office the reason why they crossed it out.
    Thank you
    Diane F

  • Ron Haislip-Hansberry

    I am looking at Sarah J Andrews who died in 1922 in Robersonville, NC. I cannot find a death certificate online but she is on the death register. Is there a master sheet that details what each column is and what the codes stand for?

  • Christine

    Good morning.. I don’t have thee actual death certificate but a death index with a family members name and the number on it. The only problem is it’s 5 numbers 😩 it’s from 1921 in New York . 17148 Should I assume it’s two numbers combined . Thank you

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