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Death certificates are legal documents completed when people die. In the United States, physicians or medical examiners are required to sign them, stating the cause of death. Certificates are kept on file by the state, and survivors use them to settle the deceased person's affairs. Death certificates may sound grim, but they're filled with compelling personal details and can lead to exciting discoveries about your family history.

What You'll Find on a Death Certificate

Contemporary death certificates usually list the name, place and date of birth, place and date of death, and cause of death. The information on death certificates can vary by state since each state has its own form. And they can also vary by era, since death certificate forms have evolved over the years. Death certificates may include the deceased's burial place, occupation, marital status, spouse's name, and parents' names and birthplaces.

Death certificates can help you uncover surprisingly rich details about your family story. For instance, by comparing your ancestor's birthplace and place of death, you can get your first clue whether they may have traveled or moved over their lifetime. A look at the death certificates for multiple relatives can reveal if there was a trend, like a family that spent generations in the same town. Or you might find that your ancestors were part of a greater migration pattern. African-American family members who were born in the South and died in the North might have been part of the Great Migration.

Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Death Certificate Search

Ancestry® has an extensive collection of death records. As you continue your family history journey, here are some tips to get the most out of your death certificate search.

Knowing the location can help focus your search.

Deaths may have been recorded at the state or local level. So it helps to have an idea of where your ancestor lived. Local collections or extracts were sometimes forwarded to the state as well. It’s thus a good idea to check on both levels. If you search death records on Ancestry, for instance, you can target your search by location.

Note the name of the informant.

Once you find a death certificate, note the name under “informant." This is the person, usually a friend or family member, who provided the information about the deceased. Sometimes the relationship is included on the form, but if not, you might want to do some digging to uncover it. The information on the death certificate is only as reliable as the informant.

Be on the lookout for maiden names.

It's notoriously difficult to trace the maternal line on a family tree, since many women changed their names when they married. Death certificates can provide the missing link. The deceased's parents are often listed with their birthplaces, including the mother's maiden name. This detail opens up new records to explore, like birth certificates and immigration documents.

Don’t overlook the occupation.

Your ancestor's occupation is another potential lead. It could point you to professional records that shed light on your family member's work, training, and education. Professional associations often published directories with members' addresses and qualifications, like where a doctor got their medical degree.

Check for special or unusual circumstances.

Some death certificates have a line for “special information" that notes if someone spent time in a hospital or institution. If your family member was institutionalized, there may be related records. The 1880 Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedule, for example, was a special census that counted inmates in institutions, disabled people, homeless children, paupers, and prisoners.

Remember burial places may hold additional clues.

The cemetery where your ancestor was buried may give you more clues to follow. Many families are buried together, so you can search the cemetery's records for other relatives.

Death Certificates Are Not the Only Death Records.

Death certificates aren't the only evidence of someone's passing. They may be the most prominent end-of-life document, but death records extend beyond a single form.

Some other death records worth exploring include:

Death notices

These paid announcements typically in the local paper list the date of death and details about the memorial service.

The Social Security Death Index (SSDI)

This database lists basic information such as the date of death and last known address for people who applied for U.S. Social Security benefits.

Funeral home records

Funeral home records could include cause of death and also details like the deceased’s occupation, residence, and age.

Newspaper obituaries

Newspaper obituaries are a great place to find biographical details and stories about your family members.

On Ancestry you can also explore specialized collections like Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1835-1974, or the records of people who died by guillotine during the French Revolution.

Gather New Details for Your Family Story in Death Records

Sometimes the best place to start a story is at the end. Together, these various death records can paint a rich picture of your ancestors' lives, families, and legacies.

Put your new-found knowledge to use and add rich new details to your family story today. Find family death certificates in the death records category page on Ancestry.