Death records: an invaluable resource in your genealogy research

Of the various types of vital records to search when beginning a family tree, those relating to the death of a family member provide some of the most prolific and accurate information available.  In fact, genealogists often recommend beginning one’s search with death records as this is the most recent source of information about one’s ancestor.  Death records encompass a variety of documents, including death certificates, newspaper obituaries and related death notices, cemetery indexes, burial records, probate records and Social Security Death Indexes.  These documents often proffer more detail than just the time and place of death: one can learn the names of the deceased’s parents, siblings, children and spouse, the date and place of birth, the cause of death, and the occupation and Social Security number of the deceased.  A death record can also serve as a gateway to obtaining additional information that may not be available in the document itself.  For example, a death certificate may refer to the funeral home of the deceased and initiate a search in that funeral home’s records.  Below is some advice for navigating death records and utilizing those records to advance your genealogical research.

Death certificates.  Death certificates, which are filed in the state where an individual died, specify the date, time and place of death.  All other information is given by a person close to the deceased called an informant.  The death certificate often includes the date and place of birth of the deceased, thereby making it easy to locate a birth or marriage certificate.  Death certificates may list the name and last known address of the next of kin.  In cases where a death certificate indicates the deceased’s occupation, this could present an opportunity to locate pension or occupational records if the individual worked in certain industries, such as railroad work.

Obituaries.  Newspaper obituaries (and to some extent death and burial notices) can contain information about the date and location of the burial and the names of surviving and deceased relatives.  This could be useful in locating the tombstone of the deceased.  An obituary is valuable as well for the non-factual information it may furnish about the deceased’s personality and accomplishments, such as hobbies, affiliations with organizations, special interests or anecdotes pertaining to military career, where applicable.

Probate records.  Probate documents are public court records created after death that direct the disposition of one’s estate. They provide a list of the deceased’s heirs, including spouse, children, parents, siblings and grandchildren.  Probate records will often incorporate other interesting data such as places of residence, land ownership, household items and religious affiliations.  The local county courthouse of the deceased’s place of residence generally houses these documents and many of them are now available online.

Social Security Death Index (SSDI).  When a death is reported to the Social Security Administration, it becomes listed in the SSDI.  Upon identifying a person in the SSDI, one can then request a copy of the original application for a Social Security card.  This document supplies the date and place of birth, as well as the names of the deceased’s parents.  The majority of the records are from 1962 to the present.  The SSDI is available at no charge from several genealogy websites.

Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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