Anatomy of a Death Certificate

by Gena P. Ortega | May 30, 2013

Death certificates give us so many more clues that just the date of a person's death. Family relations, years at a residence, occupation, military service, and family health history are just a few of the details a researcher may find.

However, a big caution needs to be sounded when using death certificates. One of the pieces of advice you will hear about death certificates is that they are original sources for the death of a person, not their birth, so information surrounding their birth needs to be verified. I would say that most of the information on a death certificate needs to be verified. Let's take a closer look at death certificates and see how we can best use them.

What is on a death certificate?

Often when we receive a death certificate we are looking for a particular piece of information. Maybe we want to confirm the date of death or where the deceased was buried. Maybe we want to know the parent's names. For those interested in family health histories, the cause of death is particularly important.

Using an example from the Arizona death certificates found on Archives.com, let's look at some of the basics found on death certificates and how they can help.

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Personal Particulars

While the death date on a death certificate should be accurate, the birth date for the deceased is less likely so. Why? Unless this is a death for an infant or a small child, a person who was at the birth is probably not the informant for the death certificate. Aside from the fact that people may be creative in reinventing a birth year for themselves to make themselves look younger or older, no one is looking at a birth certificate when they fill out the death certificate. Use the birth date as a clue, but verify with original birth information.

In some cases a death certificate can provide you with some nice detail information like an occupation. But as with anything, it's important to verify the information in other records such as city directories. In this case, like many women of the time the catch-all "housewife" is used to describe her occupation. It's important to remember that with women, they may have worked outside of the home but still were referred to as housewives in government documents.

Cause of Death

It's not unusual to be surprised at the cause of death in cases where family stories have documented something different. It's important to remember that often the cause of death might be something that was immediate like heart failure even though that person had battled cancer for months. In some cases the cause might be more vague as in this cause of death that says "smothering spells accompanied by vomiting causes unknown." Did she die of an illness like influenza or some other respiratory disease? Using this death certificate as the only source it would be hard to tell unless you were a physician or knew something about historical medical maladies.

The Informant

Consider that on any one death certificate you have multiple people providing information including the informant, who may or may not be a family member, a physician, and a funeral director. An informant on a death certificate may be staff from a hospital or care facility where the person spent their last days. That information they provide may come from a patient file with any number of unknown informants. Even when a family member is an informant, even a close family member, that doesn't guarantee the accuracy of the information. Grief, fatigue, family legend, can all be factors leaving a person unintentionally giving information they may truly believe is accurate.

In the death certificate shown above, there is no indication who the informant is. But if we look at the other clues found on the death certificate we can surmise it might have been a family member. The local register's surname is the same as the deceased's maiden name and the person who signed the information under the medical diagnosis is the same as the deceased's mother. I'm not saying that everyone with the same name is related, but in this case knowing that this is a small community might help as you do some additional sleuthing.

A further comment on informants is in order. Have you ever provided information for a death certificate? Providing that information comes at a stressful time for family. It's no wonder that information, even provided by close family can be incorrect. Even close family members may not have paid too much attention to family history details like the year their parent was born or the actual names of their grandparents (beside Grandma Smith).

Now with the ability to pre-plan funerals people are able to be the informant on portions of their own death certificate. That would be the best situation, right? They know their own name, birthdate, parents' names, etc. Well, in a case of one of my relatives, the person made up some information to correlate with what she wanted the past to have been, not the reality of how it actually was.

It's Not All There

One of the reasons I used this example of a death certificate is because it's missing a lot of important information like the burial information. A researcher relying on this document for burial information would be disappointed. This is a good example of how the death certificate is just one piece of the puzzle and is not the only document one should use to learn about the death of an ancestor.

Next Steps

Now you have the death certificate, follow this up with other information that can be found about a death including death notices, funeral notices, and obituaries in local newspapers. A search for local cemeteries for a burial place might provide additional information.

Conclusion

Depending on when your ancestor died, death certificates 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 death certificate and seek out additional evidence for the information vital to your research. Like all good sources, death certificate lead the researcher to other documents such as cemetery records, newspapers, city directories and more.

[Note: For more examples about using death records, watch "What Are You Missing in Death Records?" by Amy Johnson Crow on Archives.com's YouTube channel.]


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