Sep 30, 2011

Why I Love Death Records

One of my favorite forms of genealogy records are Death Certificates.  They contain a wealth of genealogical information.  I have discovered so much from these records, not only major links such as maiden names and parent names, but also little subtle clues that lead to more information.  Death records are held by the state and each state has their own set of rules.  Some provide free access online, some (like PA) do not.  Most provide the same set of information but sometimes older records provide extra tidbits.  For example Michigan provides their early records free on line and includes the number of children born to the person if female and how many are still living.  Very valuable information since this is only provided on the 1900 and 1910 census.

When I began researching before the internet (showing my age I know!) death certificates were my major source of information.  Now with online records nothing makes me happier than to find a state that has free on line access to death records.  I will jump for joy when I find not only an index but a link to the actual scanned death record.  While cause of death does not really provide genealogy data (unless it is a genetic disease or long term illness that forced life changes in your ancestor) I love knowing why my ancestors died.  It somehow makes me feel more connected to them. But it can become quite expensive when you have to send for the certificate and I find myself having to pick carefully which ones I need the most.  I am one of few I'm sure who would hit the lottery and spend my cash on ordering death certificates!

To show how useful these records have been here are some of the things I have found through the death certificates of ancestors.  Of course it is important to keep in mind that the information is only as good as the person who was the informant.  Do not assume all information like parents' names and birth dates are 100% correct. Generally the older the person at death the more shaky the info might be.  Things like birth place and maiden names are more likely to be forgotten.
  • The most useful information on most DC's is of course names of parents.  Many times the mother's maiden name is listed as Unknown.  But just a first name can be helpful in searching for a family in the census.
  • For married females you can discover their maiden name through the father's name if listed plus maiden names of the deceased mother if listed. 
  • Locations of birth and death of the deceased as well as birth location of parents.  Locations will tell you where to look to find census information.
  • Place of burial.  Finding the cemetery can lead to discovering more ancestors in the same or even surrounding cemeteries.
  • Look at the name of the informant.  This is usually (but not always) a close relative.  I have found unknown children and married names of daughters through the informant names.   I also actually found a living cousin of my grandmother who was listed as an informant.
So what if you find information you know is incorrect?  Make a note of it.  While it may just be plain and simple incorrect data, it may also be a clue.  That wrong name for mother may actually be the correct name of another relative (informant was confused).  I have seen incorrect parents names--listed to cover illegitimate births.  I have also found a maiden name of a deceased's mother (knew it was wrong) that turned out to be the maiden name of the deceased's grandmother.

Bottom Right-Katie Orth-14 months-Death Record
Thanks to a post at the Allegheny County forum on I recently found Pittsburgh City Death Records 1870-1905 online from Family Search.  I have been a busy bee looking up ancestors!  This database has been a gold mine since searching for a name not only brings up that person's death record if there but also all records that name is listed on.  I (sadly) lost count of the number of children I have found of my ancestors.  Since they were born and died in between census years there are no other records of them.  I also solved a long standing mystery of two people buried with my great, great grandfather Andrew Orth.  I had no idea who they were and there were no markers on their graves.  I could find no records what so ever.  Turns out they were young children of Andrew's.  Now I feel like they are no longer forgotten.  You can search the records for the City of Pittsburgh here Pittsburgh City Death Records 1870-1905.
    I have included links to numerous databases of free Death Records on line on my Links to Free Sites page.  If you know of others let me know and I will include them.  For the record Pennsylvania is TERRIBLE with death records.  This has been a thorn in my side for a long time.  I will talk more about this in an upcoming post but in the mean time you can visit this website People for Better PA Historical Record Access to learn how you can help change the laws in PA so death records are easily accessible to genealogists.

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