Why You Want the Death Certificate of Your Ancestor
Information that can be listed on a death certificate, when death certificates can be helpful, and how to locate them
Often those doing their genealogy don't want to take the time or spend the money to obtain a death certificate for their ancestor. Perhaps they already found the gravestone online or found the death date in an online index, and it doesn't seem important. However, death certificates can contain many helpful tidbits about your ancestors.
Information that May Be Listed on a Death Certificate
A death certificate can have this information:
- The name of the cemetery where the person is buried
- The date of birth
- The place of birth
- The names of the person's parents including the mother's maiden name
- The place of birth of the person's parents
- The name of the person's spouse at the time of death
- The date of death
- The age of the person at the time of death
- The marital status of the person
- The person's profession
- The date of burial
- The last address where the person was living when they died
- The length of time that the person was living at that address
- The cause of death
- The length of the illness
- The name of an informant, usually a close relative, and the address of that person
- The name of the undertaker
The information recorded on death certificates varies from state to state. In earlier years, sometimes you will find only a long form certificate with a few details recorded for the individual, such as their name and age.
Keep in mind also that the accuracy of the information on a death certificate depends upon the knowledge of the informant or person giving the information for the certificate.
You will want to look to see who the informant was and analyze how well they knew the deceased person. If they are a son or daughter, then most likely the information is going to be accurate, but if it's a distant relative, it may not be as correct or could be partially correct. In all cases, the information regarding the death is usually accurate, but any of the other details may or may not be completely accurate, depending on the knowledge of the informant.
Situations Where a Death Certificate Can Be Helpful
A death certificate can be particularly helpful for situations such as:
- You know a person's date of death, but want to find out in which cemetery a person was buried so that you can visit that cemetery or contact that cemetery to see if they have additional records available
- You want out to find out the name of a person's parents or the mother's maiden name
- You want to know the name of the specific city or town where a person was born
- You want to know the place where a person's parents were born
- You want to know the address where your ancestor was living
- You want to know the cause of death and/or how long they were ill
- You want to know the name of the undertaker so that you can contact the funeral home to see if they have further information about the person
If you are trying to learn more about your mystery ancestor, it can be helpful to locate a death certificate for each of their children to learn clues about their parents. For example, you can see what the death certificate of their children says about where they were born. You can also see the specific place where a person's children were born to pin down better where the parents were living at the time of the births of their children. You may also be able to find out the mother's maiden name on the death certificates of her children.
How to Find a Death Certificate
Death certificates are generally held by the state Department of Health, though each state has different laws regarding death certicates. Some states started keeping death certificates earlier than others, though all states have them from the 1920s and later. For states and years, death certificates can even be located online.
You can locate death certificates that are available online by using our records directory for death records. If death certificates were not being recorded at the time of death of your ancestor, then you could try looking for church records.
The FamilySearch wiki has details about which states recorded death certificates for which years.
If you are looking for a death certificate for a recent death, a Google search for the state name plus death certificate, such as "New York death certificates" can also help you track down which government entity holds copies of the certificates.
Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 850,000 sources to help you more easily locate the available records.
Have an ancestor you are having difficulty finding? Learn from examples of breaking down break walls in our brick wall ancestor series or request that your ancestor be included.