Jan 31, 2020

Limitations of Death Certificates

January 31, 2020

One of the first records genealogists tend to want to locate for their ancestors is a death certificate. It seems like a no brainer since it usually contains information such as date and place of birth, parents’ names (including the mother’s maiden name), marriage status, date and place of death, burial place and cause of death. Why wouldn’t an intrepid genealogist search for such a valuable document?


In fact, just a few weeks ago when I volunteered at the Old Town Library for one-on-one genealogy sessions, that’s exactly the document a visitor was trying to locate. There was only one problem: the death date of the person in question was 1850, in Illinois. The person who wanted to find the certificate was a fairly new genealogist, and he didn’t realize what the problem was with his quest. In 1850, in most areas of the United States, no death certificates were kept. Most states did not require death certificates until the late 19th century, at the earliest. In many places, such as Colorado, they weren’t kept until after the turn of the 20th century. A few places, such as New Jersey, did keep some death records (not death certificates) with some information as early as the mid-19th century, but for most midwestern and western states, that was not the case. This means that no matter how diligently a genealogist may seek them, some death certificates just do not exist and never did.


Another limitation to keep in mind is that even if a death certificate does exist for an ancestor, not all information on a death certificate is necessarily accurate. The date and place of death is usually considered to be primary information, which means that the record was made with first hand information at or near the time of an event. Because it is primary information, these facts are typically correct, although typos and other errors are not unknown. However, the information concerning the deceased’s date and place of birth as well as parental information is considered to be secondary information; this information was recorded by someone who may not have known the information from first hand knowledge but only as hearsay so it is more likely subject to error. It’s obvious why this is the case. A doctor or other official recorded the place and time of death at or near the time of death. He or she signified via his signature that the information recorded was correct. On the other hand, the information concerning the deceased’s birth is often supplied by a family member or friend, who may not have been present, or even born, at the time of the deceased’s birth Any information supplied would be secondary and subject to error.


Although death certificates are definitely worth seeking, it’s important to remember that they do have limitations due to the fact that they were not kept in earlier times. In addition, errors may have been recorded, particularly when it comes to the secondary information recorded on them.


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large