Anatomy of a Death Certificate

Happy Archives Month! A wise researcher once said “genealogy without documentation is mythology.” During October, we will be taking a closer look at some of the wonderful genealogical resources available at the Archives and how they can help you dig deeper and possibly solve your family history research problems.


Death certificates are one of the most popular records used by family historians for their research. Depending upon when your ancestor died, they are one of the first sources a researcher should seek to learn more about their ancestor.  Once in your possession, go through each line of the document and seek out additional evidence for the information vital to your research.  Like all good sources, the death certificate leads the researcher to other documents.

Death certificates provide us much more information than just the date of a person’s death.  Information contained on the death certificate may lead you to other records.  However, some information should be approached with caution.

Death certificates contain primary and secondary information.  Remember primary information is recorded at or near the event, by a person who has direct knowledge of the event; whereas secondary information is recorded long after the event, by a person who was not present at the event.

EPR Stewart Death Certificate - primary sources

The yellow shaded portions of this death certificate show the information that can be considered a primary source and thus is most likely trustworthy. This information was provided by doctors, coroners, undertakers, etc. who attended the deceased at the time of their death or just prior to this certificate being completed. This certificate was issued for the death of Elinore Pruitt Stewart, author of the book Letters of a Woman Homesteader. But notice that there is a discrepancy between the first and maiden/middle names she published under. Further research may be necessary to decide whether or not to trust this source for that particular bit of information.

The primary information is the information regarding the event itself: the person, place, date, time, the cause, and other information pertaining to the event that just took place.

EPR Stewart Death Certificate - secondary source

The green shaded portion of this death certificate is the secondary source information provided by the informant. This information may or may not be trustworthy, depending upon who the informant was. In most cases, the informant was not present at the time of the deceased’s birth and thus the information could be considered hearsay. But it is a great place to find clues for corroborating documentation.

The secondary information is the biographical information – the birth date and place, parents’ names and birthplace.  The accuracy of this information is directly dependent upon the informant, and their relationship to the deceased.

Usual residence information is particularly important when a person dies in another state.  Example: A person with a usual residence of San Antonio Texas dies in Tucson Arizona.  If a cemetery name is given, it could be located in San Antonio or Tucson.   Also, the usual residence information should lead you to the city directories, census records, newspapers for obituaries, and the cemetery depending upon its location.

Over time, death certificates have come to include military service, and social security numbers, which are records available for research, also, an unusual cause of death (homicide) may lead you to the court records surrounding the event.

Henderson, Prairie Rose Coleman death certificate 1933-2070-4 homicide example

The pink section highlights the coroner’s notes about the death of Rose Coleman, also known by her rodeo stage name “Prairie Rose” Henderson. Rose disappeared in a snowstorm in February 1933. More than 6 years later, remains were found that were thought to be hers.
 
A death certificate like this one may lead you to other sources like coroner’s inquests (for suspicious/unattended deaths), probate records, newspaper articles, etc.
 
You may also want to check for documentation filed with a death certificate like this one. If you notice, the highlighted area says “over”, meaning there is likely more information on the back. In this case, there was also a letter from the Vital Statistics staff documenting why two certificates were issued and other administrative notes.

Don’t forget the obvious clue: someone has died, did they have a will?  Is there a probate file with the court?  Both of these documents can provide further clues to research.

— Robin Everett, Processing Archivist

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1 Comment

Filed under Archives Month 2014, Genealogy

One response to “Anatomy of a Death Certificate

  1. Very well explained and I know a help to many people.

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