21 November 2011

Death Certificates: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

     A death certificate is a valuable record for genealogists. For the most part, they can be easy and inexpensive to obtain and provide a ton of information. A death certificate for your brick wall ancestor is the answer to your genealogy prayers - right? Not so fast! Just like any other record, you need to obtain it, evaluate it, and decide how trustworthy the information is.

     Imagine this scenario: your loved one has just passed away and you're grieving, but also having to handle the legal issues created by death. The funeral director approaches you and asks for the names of the parents. You know this information, but your mind goes blank. Seeing that you're upset, the funeral director tells you that it's not important and that they have enough information from other relatives/documents. The next thing you know, you're holding a certified death certificate in which your loved one's mother is listed as "Not stated."

     Here are a few examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to death certificates.

  • The Good
    • The death certificate exists and you obtain it.
    • It was filled out by a spouse or sibling who has known the deceased for a long time and has first hand knowledge of the dates and relationships.
    • The death certificate provides dates, locations and relationships for your ancestors. 
    • Typed or written in print.
  • The Bad
    • You can't find a death certificate anywhere.
    • If you did, it was filled out by a second spouse, child, distant relative or even a friend or institution who didn't know the information.
    • The death certificate provides no information at all: the dreaded "Not Stated."
    • Messy handwritten cursive.
  • The Ugly
    • You know a certificate exists, but due to local laws, you can't access it.
    • It was filled out by a second spouse, child, distant relative or even a friend. They thought they knew the information. 
    • The death certificate provides dates, locations and relationships for your ancestors - and it is all the informant's best guess.
    • Illegible scribbles. 
     As you can see, sometimes the good, bad and ugly might be hard to differentiate. It can be difficult to tell if the information is right or wrong. Keep in mind that the information was rarely provided in advance by the deceased. It was provided by someone else who may or may not have the correct information. And of course, that's assuming you were able to obtain and read the certificate in the first place.

     If you don't already have other documents that provide similar information, work on getting them. Your best bet is to use this certificate as a starting point and compare it to other records with similar information: 
  • Census records that confirm relationships and dates
  • Obituaries that can confirm relationship and maybe ages
  • Death certificates of siblings that list the same parents
  • Marriage certificates that confirm relationships
  • Visit the cemetery listed to find relatives in the same/nearby plots
Take everything recorded on the certificate with a grain of salt. Without another document to confirm the information, a death certificate is a starting point, not the be-all and end-all.

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