Clues in Death Records

As family historians, we’re often accused of having an obsession with the dead. Yep, guilty here. And this past week, anyone looking over my shoulder on the computer would have all the evidence they need to prove that charge. I’ve spent several days trolling through death records on and what I found has reaffirmed my obsession with these records. In addition to providing names and death information, these records include clues, and in some cases stories that can enrich your family history.

When we think of civil death records, typically a death certificate or a death register comes to mind. But in browsing through these collections I found other related records included as well. For example, the description of the South Carolina Death Records, 1821-1955 database reveals that it also includes “returns of interment, returns of death, transportation for burial forms, and physician’s certificates,” among other things.

When you browse the collection by place of death you’ll see places from Cumberland, Maine, to Los Angeles, California. The records from places other than South Carolina are typically burial transit records issued by the municipality in which the person died. These records were required to ship the body to South Carolina. Here’s an example of a record from Cook County, Illinois, for Joseph Cross. While the contents of burial transit records vary from place to place, Joseph’s record gives a street address where he died in Chicago, and the name of the cemetery in South Carolina in which he was to be interred, as well as his age, date and time of death, and the cause of death.

Within death registers, we can sometimes find the name of travelers. In the collection of Missouri Death Records, 1834-1910, when you browse St. Louis, you also find the Register of Deaths outside the City of St. Louis. This one from 1890 includes S.N. Wood’s record,  which states that he died “on a train near San Antonio, Texas.” His origins aren’t noted, but that record goes on to show he was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.

Side note: This record and a surprising number of others reminded me of the importance of searching for initials when you’re not having luck with a given name. Although does include initials in its default search, those results can sometimes be buried under other hits. Searching on the initial can help bump records with that initial to the top of the results. This can be very important if you’re searching wide for an ancestor who “went missing” (like our friend from the train near San Antonio).

The Name of the Cemetery
Knowing the name of the cemetery that is your ancestor’s final resting place is an important piece of information because you will often find other family members buried there as well. They can also reveal affiliations that can be helpful in your research. For example, on the opposite page of the same St. Louis record we showed above, the next person, Benjamin Jennings, was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, indicating that he was likely a member of that fraternal organization.

I did a little poking around for more information on St. Louis cemeteries and found this website, courtesy of the St. Louis Public Library, which lists cemeteries in St. Louis—city, county, and some from adjoining counties. From the list I can also see that the next cemetery mentioned, Mt. Sinai, is a Jewish cemetery located on Gravois Rd., Affton, west of River Des Peres. The one after that, Sts. Peter and Paul is a Catholic cemetery, “Established in 1865, by German Catholics of the Sts. Peter and Paul parish; successor to St. Vincent Cemetery.” Check around for similar websites for the places where your ancestors died.

Cause of Death
The reason for your ancestor’s death is an interesting and important piece of information. Since some medical conditions are hereditary, it’s important to note the cause of death for close family members. It can also give you some insights into your family’s story. When it’s provided, make note of how long the decedent had been under a doctor’s care. Lacy McKay Culpepper's doctor, Orem Moore, had been treating her since 1919 for pulmonary tuberculosis when she died in 1922. (From North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1975) When you see lengthy illnesses, you can imagine the toll that it took on the family throughout those years.

Registers make it easy to scan and see what other people in your ancestor’s neighborhood were dying of. As you scan this page from a 1904 Ohio County, Kentucky death register,
 you can see that the measles were clearly going around. Nine children and two adults listed measles as the cause of death, most of them dying in February and March of 1904. (From Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1953)

Since collections of death certificates are typically arranged chronologically, it can be interesting to page through the certificates around the time of your ancestor’s death as well.

If you find a cause of death that is unusual, perhaps the result of an accident, check local newspapers for that time period for more details. Since you have the date of the event, you can use that (specifying exact) to narrow your search to events within that month in the Newspaper Collection on

Keep in mind that newspapers often picked up stories from nearby areas, and in some cases even across the country, so don’t limit your search to your ancestor’s local newspaper.

Addresses and Informants
Often you’ll find the residence of the decedent listed in a death record. Make a note of it and add it to your list of known addresses for that family. I like to incorporate them into chronologies I keep on my ancestors. 

It’s also a good idea to look for the name of an informant (the person who supplied the details for the record). You may find the name of a family member there.  In this 1909 North Carolina death record for the infant child of Rosalean Love, we can see that the informant's last name of Watt is the same as the maiden name given for Rosalean.

In fact, when we find that informant, Carrie Watt,in the 1910 census, Rosaline is listed as the daughter of the head of household and she is the wife. The address in that census matches up with the address Carrie gave in the death certificate.

Looking at the informant is also important when it comes to assessing the accuracy of the details included in the record. Try to determine what the relationship is between the informant and the deceased, and then you’ll be able to better judge what aspects of the record the informant would have first-hand knowledge of and what details are more likely to be hearsay, educated guesses, or speculation.

Some death records also asked how long the deceased had lived in the city, state, or country. This burial record says that Mrs. Sabina Hackett had lived in St. Louis (Missouri) for 20 years.

Contents May Vary
The records available and how comprehensive they are depends on the time and place where your relative lived, but it’s important to always go after the entire record—and all records that relate to your ancestor’s death. Often the records we find online are only indexes, and if we don’t go after the original record we could miss out on valuable details. 

What’s Available for My State? has a growing collection of vital records and vital record indexes. There are two ways to determine what collections are available for the state where your ancestor lived. The first is through the Card Catalog. Use the filters on the left side of the page to select the collection types (in this case, “Birth Marriage & Death,” and then “Death, Burial, Cemetery & Obituaries), and then select the country and state in the “Filter by location” options.

Another good way to view collections by state is through our state pages. To access the state pages, click on the “Search” tab and select a state from the map at the bottom of the page.

From each state page, you can view the top collections for each record category. Below is a look at the vital records available on for North Carolina.

For more information on vital record availability for each state, you can click over to the “Resources” tab, where you’ll find information on when vital registration began and what repositories hold the original records.

Check here and also on the description on each collection’s direct search page for details on how to request copies of the entire vital record when you find your ancestor in an index. The details in those records can help us preserve their story, and in a sense, breathe life into our family history.

Juliana has been writing and editing newsletters for more than thirteen years. She’s looking forward to meeting some of you at the Pennsylvania Family History Day in Exton, Pennsylvania. To see upcoming events where will have a presence, click here.

Other articles in the 30 October 2011 Weekly Discovery 

Halloween Family History-Style  

Family History Tip: Browsing Census Districts 

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