December 4th, 2013

Digging Into Death Records

As the research for your family tree begins with the present and then moves into the past, death records are an excellent source with which to begin your research. Death certificates can contain a wealth of information, depending on the country of origin, and they can help you to determine whether or not you are researching the right person. It is also quite easy to find death records online, and consequently they are the starting point for many genealogists.

You might wonder why you should care when your great-grandfather died, when what you really want to know is who your great-great grandparents were. Well, death records can provide exactly the information you are looking for, as your great-grandfather’s death certificate may reveal the maiden name of your great-great grandmother. That particular information may not be known by living relatives, so finding it is a genealogical coup! Death records also include funeral home records, obituaries, and tombstone inscriptions, and none of these sources should be overlooked when tracing an ancestor.

Obituaries often mention a number of relatives, and can include cousins, aunts, uncles, step-children or step-parents, foster children and parents and much more. They may reveal relatives that you didn’t know existed, and can mention friends who may be able to tell you more about your relative. Tombstone inscriptions can lead you to organizations or clubs they may have been a member of such as Sons of the American Revolution, who may be able to provide you with military records. Funeral home records often record the exact date, time, and location of death.

As I mentioned, death records are also one of the most easily accessible records for genealogists. Because the individual is dead, there is not so much concern over privacy as there might be with other documentation. All of this is not to say that you should begin a search with death records, only that they are an excellent starting point if you have no other documents or records concerning your ancestor. You can just as easily begin with a marriage certificate or census report. Once you have gathered as much information from your own home and your living relatives however, it generally makes sense to make death records the next place you go to to continue your genealogical quest.

If you’re unsure of where to look for death records, the Social Security Death Index is a good place to begin. It is compiled by the United States Social Security Administration, and contains vital data on approximately 90 million individuals. If you are searching an individual from the United Kingdom or whose death record is there, the UK National Archives, or the UKBMD (United Kingdom Birth, Deaths, and Marriages) websites are good places to begin. In Canada, Library and Archives Canada can help you.