Documenting Death

(wHdc) Collecting documents related to the death of your genealogy target


Written 2010 by Will Johnson
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"Documenting Death" by Will Johnson,, Professional Genealogist
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    What are the genealogical documents used to detail a person's death, and what can be expected to be found on each of them?

    Death Certificate
    The most common document would be their death certificate.  Death certificates are a fairly modern invention, some locations requiring them only for about the past hundred years.  A death certificate would typically indicate the full name of the person deceased, the date of death, the cause of death, the date of birth or sometimes just the age.  It would typically indicate their occupation, whether they were single married widowed.  Where they normally lived.  Who was the doctor who certified their death, who was the informant, who was the undertaker, and where was the body buried.  Many but not all death certificates will also ask for the parents names, and their birthplaces.  Never rely just on a death index, always get your own copy of the original certificate.

    Often overlooked but very useful, the obituary holds more clue on your person.  Typically an obituary will state who survives the person, for example a spouse, siblings, children.  Typically an obituary will state many biographical details such as what jobs the person had over their lifetime, or a list of clubs to which they belonged or favorite hobbies.  When gathering details on your person, the list of survivors is quite important to have.  When you are collecting the obit.  Right then and there, on the back of your copy, write the full name of the newspaper and the full date of the publication date of that issue.

    The tombstone can be quite important for a few reasons.  Sometimes the death certificate will not state the exact birthdate, while the tombstone may.  Sometimes on the tombstone will be some tiny scrap of data that you need, such as "born in Chicago" or "Mason", which can lead to other clues.  Often people are buried in family plots or next to a sister, child, parent who you may not at first recognize.  So when you are gathering the tombstone photo, always take a picture of who is on the right, and who is on the left as well.

    If you're not sure the cemetery in which your person was buried, consult with the county librarian.  Many county genealogical societies have published lists of tombstones with an index.  If you're not certain what county, you will need to do more research on the life of your person.  Most of the time, people are buried in the last county in which they lived, but not always, this is why the death certificate and obituary are necessary.

    When you die with stuff, someone has to figure out who gets the stuff.  It doesn't always have to be land, it may be just money, or a business or a barn full of corn.  If you left a will, the probate court will approve the will, allowing the named executor or executrix to handle the estate.  Sometimes however the named person does not wish to, or cannot and the court will then name an administrator-with-the-will-annexed.  If you die without a will, the court will name an administrator.  Typically this will be the next-of-kin, but not always.  Probate papers are not the same thing as a will, and even if you have a will, you will have probate papers as well.  You should always get a full copy of the entire probate packet, not just the final reckoning.  It may cost you twenty five bucks, but it's worth it to be able to consult it, when you have a question.

    There are times when the estate is of such little value, that the probate court minutes will simply say that the widow came to court and declared the estate was only worth $200 and it was fully vested in her.  And that's all you get!  Nothing more.  However when there are minors, and especially when there is a step-parent, or no other parent, the cases can be quite long and complicated.

    If there was a surviving spouse, always remember to check the records around the time when that spouse died as well.  Sometimes the probate have become mixed together.

    Funeral Home Records
    Funeral Homes also kept records, but not all funeral homes kept their records.  It's hit-and-miss.  The death certificate and/or obituary will tell you the name of the home.  Just write to them, if they still exist, and see how they respond.

    Internment Records

    The same holds true for cemetery records.  They kept records of who bought a plot, and who was buried there and when, but not all cemeteries have very decent records.  The death certificate and/or obituary will tell you the name of the cemetery.  The county health department can tell you the name of the caretaker of that cemetery.  Write to them, and see how they respond.

    Burial Permits

    If a body is to be brought in from another location, often a permit is required to move the body into the county.  These would be in the county courthouse if they exist at all.

    Pension Records

    If your person received a pension of any form, such as a military pension, or social security, those agencies also kept track of when the person died.  And at times, they will have details, that no other document contains.  For military pensions, you may get a list of battles in which your person participated.  You may even get the name of their hometown.

    Church Records
    Catholic churches kept records of the baptisms, marriage and burials in their parish.  Some other churches did as well.  It's always worthwhile checking out what church records may exist in the area in which your person lived.

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