Deciphering the Data on Death Certificates

Death certificates are often overlooked or undervalued by genealogists as a source of genealogical data. This may because they contain less information than other documents, or simply because death is a distasteful subject. Whatever the reason, they should not be completely discarded as a genealogy resource. Though they can be difficult to decipher; some death certificates didn’t include ages until the mid-nineteenth century, they can still reveal other ancestral inf0 such as:

  • Place of death
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Full name

Let’s break down the above bulleted listing one topic at a time, and go into a little more depth of each one.

Place of Death
Usually the place of death listed on a death certificate is the place of residence of the deceased, but people also sometimes died in poorhouses, almshouses, or hospitals which were a distance from where they actually lived. These locations could actually be in a different civil district, which is one of the intricacies of research that makes genealogy a challenge. This is mainly true of large cities, which have many subdivisions of districts, but it can occur in some rural areas as well. Another point to consider is that your ancestor may have died while travelling, so it’s always wise t o search the registers of surrounding areas for records relating to them.

Usually the word male or female or the letter M or F will appear on a death certificate, but occasionally they may have been left out. This can cause confusion when only the first letter of a first name is used such as; J. Waldron, or when a first name could be considered male or female, like Leslie. Make sure to check all options before discarding the information as useless.

The early use of the word “occupation” was not exactly the same as we use it today, and can prove to be quite deceptive. The listing of a man’s occupation is mainly straightforward, but sometimes the occupation of a woman or child is listed, and this is where it can get confusing. A child is usually depicted as “the son of” or the “daughter of” in this section of a death certificate, and a wife as “the wife” or “widow of” with the name and occupation of the husband following.

With single women the situation can become even more difficult and a number of possibilities could occur here. Often though the occupation will be listed as “daughter of” or even “daughter in law of” with the father’s occupation following.

Cause of Death
Until the late nineteenth century, causes of death were either unlisted or described in an archaic way. Old age is commonly recorded as the cause of death, as is senile debilitation. Researchers have even come across bizarre reasons like “Visitation from God”, or “Possessed of demons”, which could call the accuracy of the certificate, or any documents from that era or area into question!

When causes of death are listed as diseases, it can be difficult to know what many of them are, as they either no longer cause death or exist in our modern society, or they have a different name. You may come across terms such as Ague (a type of malarial fever), Cancrum Otis (an ulcerous condition which led to gangrene), or Fatty Liver, today’s Cirrhosis of the Liver.

Having such distasteful diseases revealed as the possible causes of death of our ancestors can be somewhat upsetting, but it gives us insight into the lives they led, which is just as important as accumulating data.

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Names and Surnames
The greatest complication here is with spelling variations or misspellings. Typical of “Olde English” was the use of the letter Y to represent the “th” sound, and the use of I and J as the same letter. The old Elizabethan alphabet contained only 24 letters to today’s 26, and manuscripts and other documents from that era can be confusing and difficult to transcribe. Making sure to check spelling variations of all surnames, will ensure your research has been as thorough as possible.

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