In genealogy, researching an ancestor’s death should be one of your first steps when creating their family record, because most family research is worked backwards through a person’s life and then through multiple generations.
This article provides information family researchers need to know about death records/death certificates, as well as where to obtain copies and when they were first issued in each U.S. state.
History of death certificates
There are no known early civilizations that had a systematic method of recording all of its dead, not ancient Egyptians, nor the Romans or Greeks. Historically, many churches kept records of burials, but it is unknown how many of those records survived.
Among the earliest government-issued death records was the Bill of Mortality, which emerged in the 16th Century in England. These records were created by town clerks, and then compiled and submitted weekly and annually in a report to the King.
In the United States, death certificates are considered a relatively new type of government-issued document. In most states and territories, early death or burial records were kept mainly by churches, if recorded at all. There are a few exceptions, specifically among the early American colonies. For instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to have the secular courts keep these records beginning in 1639.
It wasn’t until Jan. 1, 1910, that the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death was adopted. Today, to receive funds from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, each state must collect and provide death data in a format consistent with the standard certificate.
Prior to 1910, death certificates and death registers were issued and kept at the city, county, territorial, and state levels (in some states), and their format varied by jurisdiction. 100 percent compliance with state death registration laws was not achieved nationwide until the 1940s. Even today, in the case of a stillbirth, it is not standard practice to issue both a birth certificate and a death certificate. Most states instead issue a “certificate of birth resulting in stillbirth.”
Certifying a death
Certain terminologies are involved in certifying a death.
Pronouncement of death: Only certain individuals are qualified to officially pronounce death, which varies by state law. Generally, it may include a physician, hospice nurse, medical examiner/coroner, or deputy medical examiner.
The term “pronouncement” refers to the date and time when the individual was found to be legally dead, which may not always correspond to the time death is actually suspected to have occurred. For instance, an individual expiring alone may not be discovered and pronounced dead until days afterward.
Date and Time of Death: Is the date and time an individual is thought to have really died, which may be actual or estimated by a physician, medical examiner or coroner.
Cause of Death: Before issuing a death certificate, a physician, medical examiner or coroner must determine the cause of death. “Cause of Death” is a causal chain of events (disease or injury) that directly led to the death. “Immediate Cause of Death” is the final event in the causal sequence that occurred closest to the time of death. This is filled in as the top line diagnosis on a death certificate. “Underlying Cause of Death” is the initiating event in the causal sequence that occurred most remote from the time of death. It is filled in as the bottom line diagnosis on the death certificate. “Manner of Death” is the classification of death based on circumstances surrounding it (i.e., suicide, homicide, accident, natural, or undetermined).
After pronouncement, the funeral director can initiate the death record and fill-in the non-medical portions of the death certificate. Today, in most states, this process happens electronically. The funeral director fills in the decedent’s demographic, statistical, and bodily disposition information.
Purposes of the death certificate
Death certificates are an official document that serves multiple purposes: personal, legal, statistical, and family research.
Personal: One of the most important aspects of obtaining a death certificate is to provide the family with closure and peace of mind. The death certificate gives the family a document listing the official cause of death and is helpful in accepting the loss.
Legal: A death certificate is an important legal document and may be needed:
- To settle a decedent’s estate or file a life insurance claim.
- To access retirement, military and pension benefits.
- To end public benefits.
- To get married, if a widow/widower needs to provide that their previous partner has passed.
- To access a safe deposit box or post office box.
- By adoptive parents who need to determine the death of one or more of the prospective adopted child’s natural or legal parents.
- By someone that needs to determine the death of a non-related co-owner of property purchased under a joint tenancy agreement.
- To determine payments under a credit insurance policy.
- To transfer titles to a house or vehicle after a death.
- To close or transfer stocks, bonds or other bank accounts.
- To close out credit cards and consumer contracts.
- To claim Medicaid benefits, if you’re the spouse or parent of the deceased.
- When filing final tax returns.
- To bury, cremate or transfer remains across state lines.
Statistical: At both the state and national level, mortality data compiled from death certificates is used to track disease trends, set public health policies, and allocate public health funding.
Family Research: Death records are also very helpful to family researchers because they provide a wealth of vital information.
Prior to adoption of the Standard Certificate of Death, certificates or registers would typically include at minimum the decedent’s name and their date and place of death. In later years, death records also included the descendant’s cause of death, residence, and birth date and place, as well as their parents’ names and places of birth.
While there may be some minor variability between states, most death certificates today conform to the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death, which includes three main categories of information: (1) demographics; (2) method/place of bodily disposition; and (3) death information.
- Deceased person’s name
- Date of death (sometimes hour of death)
- Sex, race, and origin or descent
- Age in years
- County and city of death, and specific location (e.g., hospital, institution, residence) and whether they were an inpatient
- Date of birth and state
- Citizen of what country
- Marital status and name of surviving spouse
- Residence address
- Usual occupation and kind of business
- Father’s name and mother’s maiden name
- Informant’s name, address and relationship
- Cause of death, including primary cause and any significant conditions or findings
- Physician and their address
- Whether it will be a burial or cremation
- Name of cemetery or crematory and location
- Funeral home name and address.
- Since 1950, social security numbers have been given on most death certificates.
Death certificates may be filed in the state where an individual died and the state where they are buried.
You might notice a handwritten or typed number below the cause of death for ancestors who died after 1900. That number is from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Adoption of a uniform code for causes of death was important for public health officials to be able to accurately collect data from deaths and see statistical trends. You can find a list of diagnoses to match the ICD number at Wolfbane Cybernatic. Choose the ICD Revision link for the year closest to the date when your ancestor died.
Pitfall: Errors are common
As an advisory to family researchers, be aware that some information on the death certificate may be inaccurate.
Despite the importance of death certificates, errors are common. According to the National Institute for Health, studies at various academic institutions have found errors in cause and/or manner of death occur in approximately 33% to 41% of cases.
In some cases, the causal chain of events leading to death is not clear. If there is an element of uncertainty, qualifiers such as “probable,” “presumed” or “more likely than not” may appear in the death certificate. Particularly with elderly persons, it can be challenging for the physician or examiner to prioritize the conditions leading to death. Although avoided today, terms like “senescence,” “infirmity,” and “advanced age” were used in the past.
To complete his or her part of the death certificate, a funeral director needs to collect basic information from an informant, which may be a family member, a neighbor, or friend. Information supplied by informants includes the decedent’s full name, date of birth, place of death, residential address, occupation, place of birth, marital status at time of death, all marriages, father’s name and birth place, mother’s maiden name and birth place, children’s names, place for burial or cremation, religion, and relationship to the deceased.
The funeral director’s informant should be someone who truly knows the answers to the relevant questions about the deceased and will provide truthful and accurate information.
But, let’s assume the deceased has no known relatives and you are the closest person to them…a good friend. Imagine how challenging it would be to provide this information; in fact, you may quickly discover you know less about your friend than you thought.
Despite the best of intentions, some of the information provided by informants might not be entirely accurate. Even a family member may not know the correct answers to the questions being asked. Parent’s names on death certificates can be especially problematic, with the mother frequently listed as “unknown.”
The point being made here is “trust, but verify” information for accuracy. Compare it to other information you may have about that person. For instance, if you have a copy of the individual’s birth certificate and it differs from the birth date on the death certificate, rely on the birth certificate.
Requesting copies of death certificates
In some states, death certificates are considered public domain documents and they can be obtained by any individual regardless of the requester’s relationship to the deceased.
In other states, only a legal representative, a spouse, parent, child, or sibling of the deceased may obtain a certified copy of the death certificate. In these instances, proof of relationship to the decedent is required.
Most states have sunset laws, a timeframe in which a death certificate is archived and opened to the public. That period of time varies by state, but is typically 25 to 50 years.
There are essentially three ways to get copies of a death certificate. (1) They can be ordered through the funeral home that handled the arrangements. (2) They can be ordered through a third-party company that specializes in vital records, such as VitalChek. (3) They can be ordered through the state, county and sometimes city in which the person died.
AncestryBirdDog.com offers a FREE State-by-State List of Death Records and Death Certificates, which includes information about when death certificates were first issued in that state and the place where they can be ordered, or possibly viewed online. Be sure to download or bookmark this guide to use as a reference for your family research.
Now that you have your relative’s death date and place, try to find their obituary through either the historical newspaper archives, a local historical society or library. Obituaries can help illuminate the individual’s life, and generally offer details about connections to other family members.
- Funeral Director’s Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting, CDC
- Physicians’ Handbook on Medical Certification of Death, CDC
- The Informant: Matters Relating to the Death Certificate, Pamela Ehrenkranz