Death certificates may seem morbid. However, they’re also one of the first records genealogists check.
Death certificates can tell you:
- The person’s full name, and where they lived when they died. (Death certificates sometimes show different addresses from what appears on census records.)
- Where the person died. (My maternal great-grandfather died at his sister-in-law’s home in another state. I didn’t have her location before, so his death certificate opened an entirely different line of research.)
- The cause of death. Death certificates are especially useful if you’re tracking health issues in a family. They often tell you what killed the person, as well as any related health conditions. Death certificates’ information can also add insights, if the death was occupation-specific.
- The person’s date and place of birth. This can help you locate the birth certificate, and take you back another generation.
- The person’s parents’ names, and sometimes where they lived or were born. This may be new information, or confirm your other research.
- The attending doctor. His office — or the office that inherited his records — and/or the hospital may provide more insights.
- Witnesses. Sometimes, death certificates are signed by witnesses. Sometimes, they’re discovered to be relatives, or another source of information.
- Burial and/or funeral home information. These can lead to even more facts about the person, including funeral home records, cemetery archival papers, as well as the information on the person’s headstone.
In addition, death certificates can help you find newspaper obituaries and relevant church records about the person.
Every record and piece of paper can tell you a little bit more.
Remember that death is often a terrible time for those who have to provide the death certificate information. That can lead to errors as the distraught person’s memories may be incorrect, due to the level of grief.
In addition, trying to make the process easier, funeral homes often fill in death certificates with what they think is the correct information. When my mom passed away in 2010, the funeral home provided us with a draft of the death record, and it contained several errors.
Except that I’m mindful of genealogical records, I might have decided the certificate was “good enough” and not bothered to insist on corrections.
So, never trust a single information source like death certificates. However, you’ll always find useful data on any death certificate.
That data will lead you to other resources, and that’s the most important reason to start with death certificates.
For a list of important, basic certificates you’ll use, see my article, Beginners – Discover your Irish Roots.