Death Records: A Check List of Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Acquire

The following article was written by my good friend, Bill Dollarhide:

Here are ten places to look for a death record. All ten sources should be obtained for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and every member of a family on your family group sheet.

 1. Death Certificate.  A rule in genealogy is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals. That means you need to obtain genealogical sources for all of them. For instance, for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every brother or sister of an ancestor, you need to obtain a death certificate (assuming they are dead). If there were six siblings in an ancestor’s family, a death certificate for each brother and sister will give six different sources about the same parents; places where the family lived; names of spouses; names of cemeteries; names of funeral directors; and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, a sibling’s death certificate may give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate? Go to the www.vitalrec.com site, where every state and county is listed, and where you can find out where, when, and how much. Start with a death certificate, because the names, dates, and places you will find on a death certificate will always lead you to further records.

Dollarhide’s rule No. 1:  Death Certificates are rarely filled in by the person who died.

2. Funeral record.  A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. Find a current funeral home in North America at www.funeralnet.com . This site has the listings from a directory of funeral homes called The Yellow Book, a published directory distributed annually to every funeral home in the U.S. and Canada.   The current funeral home nearest your location will have a copy of The Yellow Book, and if you were to stop by and ask to look up another funeral home anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, they would probably allow it. Don’t stop there when a funeral is in progress. A funeral record may include names of survivors;  names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses; and often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the person who died and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery can be found here as well. Generally, funeral directors are very easy to talk to and they are usually cooperative (they want your family’s business). Even if the old name of a funeral home is not listed in a current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one.  These businesses rarely go out of business, but are more often taken over by another funeral director. If at one time a town had two or three funeral homes, but only one today, the Yellow Book listing is still the source for finding the current funeral home in that town, which can lead you to information about the older funeral home.  Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

Dollarhide’s rule No. 2: When visiting a funeral home, wear old clothes, no make-up, and look like you have about a week to live – the funeral director will give you anything you  ask for if he thinks you may  be a customer soon.

3. Cemetery Record. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record,  that cemetery is now a  source of information about the person who died. There may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery, or off-site at a caretaker’s home; and the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried, and whether they have an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or at least know who might be the keeper of records for the cemetery. At the same time, ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers/stone masons who cater to cemeteries in the area. As a back-up, a local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone. To locate a cemetery anywhere in the United States, a special list can be obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) within their Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). The GNIS contains the names of  over two million place-names (map features) in America, of which about 107,000 are cemeteries.  The GNIS website is located at http://geonames.usgs.gov/. Click on “Domestic Names” to search for any named cemetery.

Dollarhide’s rule No. 3: The cemetery where your ancestor was buried does not have perpetual care, has  no office, is accessible only by a muddy road, and has snakes, tall grass, and lots of bugs… and many of  the old gravestones are in broken pieces, stacked in a corner under a pile of dirt.

4. Obituary. A newspaper obituary was probably published soon after the person’s death. Old newspapers from the town where the person died are usually available at the local public library. They may be on microfilm. Find the website for any library in the U.S. at the Lib-Web-Cats site, a directory of libraries throughout the world. See www.librarytechnology.org/libwebcats/.  If the library responds but says it is unable to look for an obituary or make copies for you, then you may need to find a person living in that town to go to the library for you. One way to locate such a person is to write to a local genealogical society and ask if they know someone who can do a bit of research for you. Most genealogical societies have a volunteer who responds to such requests, and there will most likely be a small fee for this service. A good list of American genealogical societies is in Elizabeth Petty Bentley, editor, The Genealogist’s Address Book (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 6th  edition, 2009). You may also find your genealogy friend on the Internet. Do a place search for people involved in genealogy in a particular place near where you need help, drop them an E-mail message and promise to do something in exchange for them. A huge collection of historic newspaper obituaries are now on the Internet. The largest sites devoted to newspapers are 1) www.GenealogyBank.com,  and 2) www.newspaperarchive.com. Check also www.cyndislist.com under the category “obituaries” for direct links to websites on the Internet specific to actual obituaries transcribed and made available in various sites. Also, use www.google.com  to search for obituaries with a keyword for a place or name of a newspaper, which should provide names, dates, etc., and what may be available. Example of keywords in the Google search box, “Obituaries Topeka.” or “Kansas City Star Obituaries.”

5. Social Security record. If a person died within the last 35 years or so, the death certificate probably includes the deceased’s social security number. With or without a person’s social security number, you can write for a copy of any deceased person’s original application for a social security card, called a form SS-5. Since 1935, virtually every working person in America has applied for a social security account. The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) needs to be consulted to see if the person is listed. Most people who died since 1962 should be listed there. A free online search services can be found as part of the FamilySearch site. See The SS Death Index at FamilySearch.org.

A search in the SSDI can be made by the surname and first name, or adding other options for a date or place of an event death. With the name and social security number, you can obtain a copy of the deceased’s application (Form SS-5) for a social security account, which was filled in by the person and gives his/her full name, date and place of birth, place of residence, name of parents, occupation, and name of employer.

Dollarhide’s Rule no. 4:  A Social Security Form SS-5 is better than a birth certificate because few people had anything to do with the information on their own birth certificate.

6. Probate Records. Details pertaining to a deceased person’s estate may be located in a county courthouse. These records may provide important information about the heirs of the deceased. Probate records may include dockets (court calendars), recorded wills, administrator’s records, inventories of estates, sheriff’s sales, or judgments. Microfilmed probate records for nearly every county in the U.S., are located at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. To find them, go to the www.familysearch.org  site. Do a “place” search for a state, then click on “Review Related Places” to see a list of the counties for that state. The topics listed include probate records, and a review of what records have been filmed can be located quickly.

7. Private Death Records (Insurance Papers, Medical Records, Etc.).  If the deceased had insurance, there is undoubtedly a record of the death within the insurance company’s files. There may be much more information concerning the deceased’s survivors, and the disposition of an estate. Hospital records are almost always closed, but a close family member may be able to get some information; and records at a Doctor’s Office are also usually closed, but again, close family members may be given access. The cover sheet of a patient’s file in a Hospital, Nursing Home, or Doctor’s Office, is almost always the page containing vital information, including birth, marriage, divorce, occupation, health insurance, and name of closest kin or person to contact in an emergency. A close family member should be able to access that information.

8. Coroner and Medical Examiner Records exist for any person who died under suspicious conditions, or for whom an autopsy was performed, or in most cases for  people who died outside of a hospital. Coroner records are public records kept at the county level in virtually all states. In addition to the circumstances of the death, there may be vital details about the deceased. Locating a Coroner or Medical Examiner for a county is not difficult. Many have their own websites, or are part of a county government website. Do a Google search using keywords such as “Coroner King County.”  The office of a Medical Examiner is used in some counties or cities in lieu of the office of coroner.

 9. Military Records for deceased veterans are public records. The National Archives and Records Administration, National Personnel Records Center (Military Records Facility) is located at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100. Write for a form SF-80 to request copies from any soldier or sailor’s military file. Their online website is at www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/index.html.  Next of kin to a deceased veteran can access data online. Others need to use the for SF-80 to obtain information about the deceased veteran.

10. Church Records. A death record may be recorded within a church’s records, plus information about a burial. Check www.cyndislist.com under the category “Religion and Church” to survey what is available online.

Go get the death records!  A death certificate is not enough, and may not even be correct. If you know a person’s exact date and place of death, there are several more sources relating to a person’s death. If you get these other death records, you will certainly learn more about your ancestors.

For Additional Information, See:

International Vital Records Handbook, 5th Edition, by Thomas Kemp.

Everything You Need to Know about… How to Find Your Family in Newspapers, by Lisa Louise Cooke.

New York Probate Records: A Genealogist’s Guide to Testate and Intestate Records, by Gordon L. Remington

22 thoughts on “Death Records: A Check List of Ten Documents Every Genealogist Should Acquire”

  1. Loved your article, Death Records. Thanks very much. It was great and you are very funny. Kathleen

  2. First I’d like to say these pointers are well thought out and accurate. BUT,
    second,these generally, for the most part, only work well in post Civil War United States & other modern countries who offer or have these services. I’m assuming the target for this post is directed to that end, and to that end it’s a great reference/guide. Does no good for poor old Uncle Luke “buried somwheres down by the crick next to Papa’s barn” though. Or Cousin Helga who was shipped back to Germany in a pine box to be with her husband who buried somewhere between Berlin & Munich during the war. Isolated cases you say? Not necessarily so during 1700’s & 1800’s both in US/Canada & abroad or in times of war.

  3. One very useful group of Military-related records are Pension Application Files. An application by a widow of a Revolutionary War veteran may give a specific date of husband’s death. Pension Application files for Union Civil War Veterans may give death dates of spouses, birth dates of all children including those who died young, and death dates of the Veterans. Veterans who qualified, in the early 20th century, for a pension increase based on age, submitted the best evidence they could muster for a birth date; this could be a certified copy of a family Bible record, an original family record, or only a statement of where they were living at the time of the 1850 US Federal Census Enumeration. There may be original marriage records or certified copies of them.

    There are shortcuts to death information on Civil War pensioners: the index cards in NARA’s Micropublication T-289 (organized by military unit) often have a date of death of the Veteran written on the bottom of the card [cards accessible at http://www.fold3.com]. For Veterans and widows collecting pensions after 1907, Veterans Administration Record Group 017P, Bureau of Pensions and Veteran’s Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933, NARA Micropublication 850 (arranged alphabetically under pensioner) usually give dates of death [cards accessible at https://www.familysearch.org].

  4. The NPRC has a new facility in St. Louis County:

    National Personnel Records Center
    1 Archives Drive
    St. Louis, Missouri 63138

  5. Regarding Rule #3: The older section of Fairfield Cemetery in Fairfield, IA is where some of my ancestors are buried. When I asked at the office (yes, they did have an office) I was told the old cemetery records had been stored in the basement of the courthouse. The good news is it had not burned down. The bad news: the records had been eaten by mice!

    I found your article very interesting. Thanks!

  6. Great article! Great information delivered with wit & wisdom! May I use it in our Treesearcher quarterly?

  7. Jade and Dave: I appreciate your comments, you have added important information. -bill$hide

  8. MzCharly. Thanks for your comment, and yes, you may use it in the Treesearcher. I have always been fond of that KGS pub. -bill$hide

  9. Thanks! I’m going there now. Our family has had a difference of opinion to my grandfather’s name (he was born in 1908 and there’s no birth certificate). This should settle the issue for us if we can see what he wrote on the form himself.

  10. What a great article, thanks Bill! You’ve provided a great amount of information and resources that I’ll have to keep in mind during my genealogy journey. I have to say that in addition to VitalRec, there’s a great site that I’ve used to obtain death certificates called VitalChek http://www.vitalchek.com/express-death-certificates.aspx. I trust their service because there’s a secure ordering process and they are official, certified death certificates. Just another resource for anyone to keep in mind. I look forward to frequently visiting your blog!

  11. Great article. I recently did a few cemetery visits during a genealogy trip to NE PA, and found a wealth of information. There were dates on headstones that I hadn’t previously been able to find. Question – How reliable are the dates on SS Death Records? I have found they sometimes conflict with other information that I have found for the same person.

  12. My first reaction, “Surely, you jest.” Then, it seems these obligatory records are not so obligatory. Good. Most of my ancestors died before death certificates were required or Social Security existed. I have will/probate and deed records for all who left any. They died in very ordinary ways, the coroners were not interested. I have a few death certs, a couple of which list a cemetery where the people were not buried. I poured over the cemetery plat map with the manager (or whatever the title of the person who kept the map). Those two folks ain’t there. Most of my folks were too insignificant to have much in the way of an obit but I have them for all I can find. If some guy died in 1820 or 1824 or 1781 (I have a couple of 1781 deaths), let me tell you, I’m not going to find a funeral record. Since they lived and died in the boonies, I won’t find much else, either. Wherever they were buried (probably the farm), by now the tombstone will be unreadable if there ever was one and it said something. I have one who died in 1931 and the local cemetery book has the small family cemetery on the old farm listed but both his birth and death dates are wrong. They have him dying in 1881! Well, he was in the 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses. I suppose the stone is unreadable. I haven’t disturbed the current owners for a wild goose chase. I have his probate records but forget about the rest of your desired records. The newspaper conveniently was not published for a few years so that takes care of an obit. No death cert. No SSDI. His military service is Confederate, so he won’t be in those indexes you mentioned. (I have his widow’s mension papers.) Church records are available in some locations, scarcer than hen’s teeth in others. My ancestors mostly lived in the hen-type territory. What I try to find is anything, everything, I can. I haven’t and will not beat my head against the brick wall of no records. Beating my head against brick walls just gives me a headache!

  13. The records at the military are based upon what is given by coroner records. Unfortunately they are based sometimes on perceived dates and not true dates what genealogists want to see. My Father actually died by murder on Sept 20th but was found on Sept 21. His death certificate shows DOF of Sept 21 and military death and cemetery records show death date of Sept 21. I have tried to correct the dates but it is a no go. Even though court records and trial records show he died the day before he is essentially stated as died by military, SSDI, and cemetary records as the next day. Anyone looking for him will think this in researching his name. Facts are not always correct.

  14. Beginning my family research back around 1975, I have to say that Bill Dollarhide made many huge contributions to genealogy in general! We are all indebted to him!

  15. I want to sincerely thank you for the wealth of information you have shed light on for me. I have not considered funeral homes not the SSA before now except SDDI. My family cemetery does not have an office but I do know where I can find any info they may have. It is fortunate for me that most of my family have used only one funeral home before the nineties. This helps tremendously.

  16. After this article was published, another article,”Visiting and Locating Cemeteries” was issued. Rebie Walley’s comment today reminded me of the story in that article regarding my search with Joyce Hensen for records for a cemetery in Kansas. Joyce was one of the best genealogists ever, and for decades was considered Mrs. Genealogy in Kansas. I was privileged to visit cemeteries with Joyce and I learned a lot, including some off-the-wall techniques for communicating with your ancestors – reading that article again may give you some ideas. Go to the search box, top of this page, type in a few words from the title of any article to find one you want to review. -bill$hide (Happy, Happy, Happy, etc., etc., etc.)

  17. I have for years been trying to locate a death certificate for my ancestor. John Paterson (b.1814 Edinburgh)was an engraver for the Ordinance Survey in England & Scotland. He and the family moved every so often due to his occupation. I last have him on an 1881 census in Glasgow. His wife is a widow receiving annuities on the 1891 census in Edinburgh. I have checked Scotland’s People,searched at the NLS in Edinburgh in attempt to find an obituary. Thus to say.. I don’t know what to do next. It seems highly likely he would be buried in Scotland, but I lack proof of evidence. I do have a record of a drowning off a vessel in Scotland for a John Paterson, but not much to go on. Would you please have any other suggestions?
    Lastly I heard you speak in WA state years ago regarding Migration Patterns and so enjoyed your presentation.

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