It might seem strange that a death certificate, which is a document of an ending, could be the beginning of your journey into your ancestor’s life. However, a death certificate can hold a wealth of information that either directly tells you things about your ancestor that you didn’t know, or points you to where you can find more substantial and important information. You’ve got to study the death certificate closely, though. Don’t skim over or ignore any line. Each line on the certificate has the potential to tell you something useful about your ancestor. Here are the top things you should be examining (but again, remember not to ignore any line):
Marital Status: Most death certificates ask whether the deceased was married, single, divorced, or widowed. This is their marital status at the time of their death, not necessarily their usual marital status. If you were wondering whether an ancestor died before or after their spouse, this will tell you that. This information lets you know whether to look at dates before or after this ancestor’s death to get the death date of the spouse.
Full Name: An unknown middle initial or even a full middle name you didn’t know might be revealed here. Middle names are often family names, such as the maiden name of the mother, or a name that has been passed down in the family for generations. It will give you clues of what to look for when searching for other ancestors on this line.
Names and Birthplaces of Parents: This is extremely useful if you didn’t already know this information. It takes you back another generation in your research.
Informant: This is the name of the person who gave the information for the death certificate. It is usually a relative, but not always. The informant will give you clues as to family relationships, and an idea as to why some information on the death certificate might be incomplete or incorrect
Cause of Death: Useful if you’re putting together a family health history.
Name of the Attending Physician: If the physician’s office still exists, or if it was a prominent local physician, you might be able to get medical records from the office or the local historical society regarding your ancestor’s illness or accident and physician’s care or treatment.
Method of Disposal: This tells you whether your ancestor was buried, cremated, or removed to another location out-of-state or out-of-town for burial (or if some more unusual arrangement was made, such as burial at sea or if their body was not found).
Place of Burial: If you didn’t know where your ancestor was buried, this will tell you. You can now make a trip to the cemetery to find the headstone or gravesite (if the site is unmarked).
Name of the Undertaker: With this information, you can go to the funeral home that handled the arrangements for your ancestor’s funeral, and get any records they may have on it.
There are many interesting and useful bits of genealogy information you can find on a death certificate. Just remember that the information is only as accurate as the person who supplied the information for it. You may discover, for example, that the names of the parents are wrong, or missing completely, the date of birth may be different from what you know it to be (or you could discover a birth date you didn’t previously know). Examine the certificate thoroughly, write down all the information that is pertinent or that may lead you to more places to search, and get to know your ancestor better.
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Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)