Death certificates are one of my favorite tools to find when working on my family tree. Granted it’s always sad that your ancestor passed away, but death certificates offer so much information that when you find them it’s like hitting the family history jackpot.
Different States, Different Availability
The downside of death certificates when searching in the United States is that each state differs when they began keeping vital statistic records, and their availability for each is different as well. I am fortunate that I live in the state of Ohio and we can go and get a birth certificate from anywhere, at any time. There are limitations, like you have to be in the county where the person died (my grandfathers are both eluding me as one died in Jefferson County and the other in Monroe), or if the person passed away between 1908-1953 you can find them on FamilySearch but if they died between 1954-1963 you have to contact the Ohio History Center in Columbus to obtain those. The cost is $7 plus tax but I can honestly say when I mailed in my check for the two I needed, I sent away on a Thursday and my death certificates were emailed to me the following Monday (my check hadn’t even cleared yet).
Most of my relatives are from Pennsylvania which has a much stricter policy for the release of their vital statistics. Birth certificates are available 106 years after birth. Death certificates are available 50 years after they die. Next year I will finally be able to get my grandmother’s birth certificate as she was born in 1914. I will be ordering my grandfather’s at the same time as he was born in 1912.
Make sure you check with the state you are researching to find out when you are able to obtain these valuable vital statistics records and find out how much it will cost to obtain these records. In Pennsylvania, it is presently $5 each.
Birth Certificates vs. Death Certificates
Though birth certificates are very important (when recently coming across my great-aunt’s birth certificate on Ancestry, I discovered that her father was not my great-grandfather). Death certificates give you birth dates, death dates, spouse, parent’s names, where they are buried, if they are buried, when they were buried, how they died, where they lived, where they were born. Granted, the information is only as reliable as the informant, but it gives you something to go with as far as your person is concerned, especially if you know little about the person.
My Most Memorable Death Certificate
My most surprising death certificate I found using Ancestry Library Edition. I am fortunate for my local library to have this, and so I would often go to my local branch and spend an hour or more at least once a week utilizing the records they had. This is when I came across my second cousin twice removed’s death certificate.
Discovering that one of your relatives was executed by the state of Ohio is always a little alarming. I am sure if I ever find another (I truly hope I don’t) that I will be just as amazed. (And I know I’ve shown this before, but some surprises you just never get over).
However, look at all the information that you can discover on the above death certificate.
- Name: Ralph Reed
- Birth Date: 1 Jun 1921
- Place of Birth: Johnstown, Cambria, Pennsylvania
- Father: Thomas Reed
- Mother: Margaret Phillips
- Occupation: Baker
- Date of Death: 4 May 1949
- Place of Death: Columbus, Franklin, Ohio
- Cause of Death: Electrocution by Legal Execution
- Informant: Mrs. Margaret Reed (his mother)
- Burial: Headrick Cemetery
- Date of Burial: 7 May 1949
All this information is from one piece of paper. Now in Ralph’s case, we are fortunate that the informant was his mother so it was a person who had a great deal of knowledge of his life. Many times we aren’t as lucky. So often I find “I don’t know” or “Unknown” for a parent’s name because the children of a person aren’t always aware of their grandparent’s names, especially if they passed away before they were born.
It is highly recommended that you gather all the vital statistics that you can for each member of your family. These include birth certificates, marriage licenses, and death certificates.
New England States
Most states began keeping death records between 1900-1930. If you are lucky enough to have relatives in the New England states where religion was the backbone of the community, you will be fortunate to have ledgers with birth and death dates. When I was finally able to leave Potter County, Pennsylvania and go to Franklin/Hampshire County, Massachusetts, I was amazed at how many vital statistic records I was able to obtain for my family where they were absent in PA.
As settlers moved west towards the new frontier, keeping records wasn’t at the top priority. As far as religion went, most of these areas had itinerant ministers. These circuit riders went from community to community, performing weddings, baptisms, and possibly funerals, but the documents weren’t always filed. This is why records throughout the mid-west are more challenging to find.
In Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where a majority of my father’s family came from, records are available in a handwritten book from 1890 to 1905. But anything before that is a mystery, often relying on gravestones for the answers for vital records, along with census records for birth dates.
Sources for Family History
Though there are many important documents to find in genealogy, I find that death certificates are one of the more important ones. Death certificates don’t always have the answers you are seeking for your people, but they are still valuable documents to have in your possession to obtain needed information about your ancestors. I know I presently have a death certificate for my second great-great-uncle and it is the only hint I have of what my third great-grandmother’s name is (I’m still hoping to hunt down her fourth living child in a hope of his death certificate giving me the same name). Both Ancestry and FamilySearch provide online images of death certificates so utilize these valuable sources, you never know what kind of interesting facts you will discover about your ancestors.