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.
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.
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.
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