Death Records

What Did Your Ancestors Leave You?

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Originally published in Heritage Quest, Issue #114, Summer 2005, page 22.

Few people are fortunate enough to have been left a small fortune by a wealthy relative when they died. A researcher may, however, find a wealth of information in the records created when their ancestors died. These can include: Home Records, a Jurisdictional Death Certificate, Newspaper stories and obituaries, a Burial Permit, Funeral Home Records, Cemetery Records, Tombstone Inscriptions, Probate Records, and possibly Church Records or Military Records. There could also be Coroner Records if someone died in an accident, and Police or Court records if their death was caused by foul play.

For me it was fortunate that my cousins eventually gave me several boxes of my grandmother's genealogical research materials that also included family history books, and a number of identified old family photographs. Researchers need to make certain that their collection will be given to someone who will at least preserve and share their work and hopefully continue on with it.

It is sad, but true that eventually everyone dies. There is the occasional relative (like my Grandfather, Alvar Bockman), who seems to have just disappeared from the face of the earth - at least until they are located again. There are an increasing number of online and published finding aids now available that can help a researcher find out where their ancestors died and to help them to locate and obtain the various records.

All of these death related records contain some basic primary information such as: John Doe died on this date from this cause; John Doe's funeral was held on this date from a relative's home, a church, or cemetery; John Doe was buried on this date at this cemetery.

Many of the records also include information about where and when the deceased was born, their parents' names, where they lived, and what they did for a living. This secondary information had to be provided by someone. The person who provided the information is known as the informant. It could have been a spouse, child, friend, or just a casual acquaintance that happened to be with the person when they died. The information about the birth and parents of a ninety-year-old person was probably not given by anyone who had witnessed the event. How many people cannot remember their spouses' birthday while they are living? How accurate will the information be when they are trying to remember it immediately after their spouse's death?

Death Records

Family Bibles:

Old family Bibles contain pages on which to record Deaths and were kept before vital record keeping began. The death of someone living in or near the household would have been recorded. However, if a family member had moved far away or become estranged from the family their death would not have been recorded, as the family likely would not have know. Diaries or other home sources could also have been used to record family events.

Jurisdictional Death Certificates

Issued by a county or a statewide department of public health. The information contained on the certificate and the date that they started to issue them will from place to place. The original purpose was to help officials analyze the causes of deaths and then to help them prevent or reduce them in the future.

The information contained will include the basic death information: place of death, full name, date of death, cause of death, signature of medical official, Undertaker, and Cemetery, date of burial, and the date recorded. Some certificates will also contain quite a bit of secondary family information that is of value to a researcher: a female's maiden name, birth date, birthplace, the parent's names and possibly even the parents' birthplaces, along with the name of the informant.

A death certificate, when it is available, is very helpful since it can help the researcher locate other records. It gives information about the cemetery and the funeral home. Since it gives the date of death it helps to narrow down the search range for locating newspaper articles. The cause of death could help show if coroner, police, or other official records might have been created.

This was the last article that I wrote for the former Heritage Quest magazine. In the four years since it was written there has been a tremendous increase in the death records that can be found online. Besides an increase in the number of indexes there are now images of death certificates for a number of states from various sources.

    • While doing genealogical research we often become pretty casual with all of the death information that we deal with, partly because most of the people are distantly related. The first time that I became somewhat emotional was when I first came across my father's entry in the Social Security Death Index back in 1996 and that was 13 years after he had died.

    • One of my cousins died in 2009 after a fight with cancer. His family had set up a website at to keep friends and family informed. Notices of Journal entries were automatically emailed to subscribers and the family was able to post photographs. A CaringBridge site lets anyone register and post comments in the Guestbook. Fortunately most family members were able to visit him over the final two months. The site allowed all of us to stay in touch and feel close even when we couldn't be there. It also relieves the family of having to communicate with hundreds of people individually.

    • After the grief passes the many comments and stories shared through the site will become valuable keepsakes. Hopefully all of it can be saved and archived. Here is the beginning of a new type of record for future researchers.

[Barbara Faerber's Death Certificate provided her birth date and place, names of her parents, and cemetery]

Funeral Home Records: A variety of items are created upon the occasion of a funeral that are usually given to the family. These might include memorial cards, sympathy cards, and a packet including the death certificate, a list of guests, and possibly an invoice. The funeral home also kept some sort of record with at least the basic death and burial information. Since funeral homes are private businesses their records are their own private property and they do not have to be made available to the public. The records from funeral homes that were sold were not always transferred to the new owners. The owner of a home that went out of business may have just taken the records or destroyed them. Other homes have had their older records microfilmed and made available at Family History Centers or other libraries. Some funeral homes have put or allowed some of their records to be made available via the Internet.

For example, you may view the records for the Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton, Illinois online at and then choose the "Funeral" link.

[A record from the Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton, Illinois]

Cemeteries & Cemetery Records: A tombstone usually provides the name, death date or year, possibly the age, birth date or year. Some family or group stones can give relationships. Adjacent and nearby tombstones can often be relatives or in-laws. Monuments might provide additional biographical or historical information. The family or a civic organization usually erected these at a later date.

There are publications of tombstone inscriptions for many cemeteries that were done by a variety of organizations such as the DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution. These publications are very useful if a tombstone cannot be read due to deterioration or vandalism. The publications that list all of the names by row or plot are very helpful since they identify family groups. The publications with just an alphabetically listing only help a researcher find out that the person is buried there.

Things to remember about cemetery research:

    • A tombstone may not exist for every person that has been buried there/

    • Memorial tombstones where nobody is buried.

    • And, there can be multiple people buried in a single grave.

    • Some cemeteries reuse plots after 25 years. If the plot lease is not renewed then someone else is buried above the old one and a new tombstone appears.

The best way to know who was buried in a cemetery is to check the cemetery records. The cemetery records usually tell: Who purchased the plot, Who is buried there, and the Dates of burial. It may also contain the cause of death, the funeral home, their parents' names, and the relationship to the plot owner. Many older cemeteries have unknown early burials where there are no tombstones or records. Cemetery records are often private records so their content and availability will vary greatly. Some cemeteries, especially those that have lost older records, may be happy to receive additional information about their occupants.

[2009: See the article Search High & Low, Above & Below for more about cemetery research and records.]

Probate Records:

Probate is the legal process by which a person's property is distributed after their death. Probate records can help to identify the deceased's living children and other descendants. Probate records are found at the county or probate district courthouse. Probate records have been kept by most jurisdictions since they were founded. Some of the older records may have been microfilmed or moved to a state archive. The two main probate record types are wills and probate files.

A will is a legal document directing how a person desires that their property be disposed of after their death. It is signed by the person and witnesses, and then filed at the courthouse.

The probate file contains all of the records that were created during the probate process. It can include an inventory of the estate, notices about the hearing, testimony and affidavits of claimants stating their relationship to the deceased, invoices for cemetery plots and tombstones, and the final distribution of the estate. If the deceased owned property in more that one county or probate district then there can be records in each of the jurisdictions.

Coroner Records: If the person died accidentally or from unknown causes, coroner records might be available.

Police and/or Court records:These records could be available if the person died as a result of foul play. Court records are legal documents created with information given while under oath and after the initial shock of the death. Often supporting documentation exists, and any discrepancies would have been clarified during the proceedings.

Published Deaths Notices and Reports


can often provide additional information about a death or in some cases is the only record found for it. There can be news stories, especially if the death was accidental or sensational. There can be listings of deaths and of the burial permits granted. Early obituaries did not give all of the detailed family history that current ones do. The only relationship usually given was when they stated that "the services were being held from the home of the deceased's daughter, Mrs. John Doe." Some obituaries tell the married names of the deceased's daughters and granddaughters and often mention where the children live.

Even though a newspaper's obituaries have been indexed that may not include all of the death-related stories. Local and regional newspapers should be reviewed for several days after a death. In a smaller town there could be news stories, society news, and obituaries from the date of death until after the burial. There could also be stories prior to the death telling of an accident or illness that caused the death.

[2009: See the article Extra! Extra! Read All About Your Ancestors for more about newspaper research.]

Other Publications: Alumni associations may publish memorials of their alumni in school publications. Also, deaths of members are often reported in the publications of churches, unions, and other civic or fraternal organizations.

Finding the Records

Home Sources: The first place to look for records is in the homes of family members. The family would have received copies of the various records and it is certainly possible that someone would have saved them

Online Indexes

The largest countrywide index for deaths within the United States is the Social Security Death Index at It contains information on all deaths reported to the Social Security Administration after 1962. It currently contains information on the deaths of over 72,000,000 people. It includes the person's name, date or year of birth, date of death, their social security number, the zip code of their residence at their time of death, and the zip code where the lump sum death befit was sent. While this is somewhat limited in helping to find ancestors it can be very beneficial while looking for long lost aunts and uncles along with the distant cousins who might have inherited a family bible.

The first three digits of a social security number issued before 1962 are a code that tells the state where the card was issued. When Social Security Cards were first issued in the late 1930s the Social Security office nearest a company's home office could have issued all of the cards for the company's staff. A salesperson in California might have been given a card with a New York code. After 1962 the code indicated the state of the mailing address of the applicant.

  • [2009: The following was omitted from the original article: The location of last benefit check was where the death benefit was sent. It is not necessarily where the person lived or died but the mailing address of the beneficiary.

Not everyone is listed in the SSDI. Exceptions were: people in alternative retirement plans such as railroad and government workers, along with farmers and housewives did not need to have Social Security cards until the 1960s. No entry would exist for the pre 1960s housewife who had been collecting on her deceased husband's social security account when she finally died.

Once you find someone in the SSDI you may want to order his or her Application for a Social Security Number. The application is know as the SS-5. It contains the applicant's name, date of birth, a detailed place of birth, their parent's names, including the mother's maiden name.

For a list of the various location codes, information on ordering the SS-5, and to find out more about the SSDI review RootsWeb's Guide No. 10 at

The Online Searchable Death Indexes for the USA website at is one of the best places to find links to a wide variety of online indexes for deaths, obituaries, burials, probate records, wills, and other death related records on the internet. It is organized by state.

Two of the major statewide death indexes are: Ohio 1913-1937 [2009: now 1913-1944] at which was manually entered by volunteers and The Illinois Death Index covering 1916 to 1950, which is from the computer records of the Department of Public Health. The Illinois State Archives has also started a new project using volunteers from around the world to enter records via the internet from copies of the microfilmed records. The Illinois Statewide Death Index, Pre 1916 project is at

Each jurisdiction may limit the time period due to privacy concerns. The Illinois project was delayed after concerns following the attacks on September 11th 2001. The 1916-1950 records were made available after the head of the state archives and members of the genealogical community petitioned the governor.

[2009: There has been a tremendous increase in number of online death indexes and even online death certificates.

See then choose Death for links to many of them.

FamilySearch is also posting images of death records at]

Compiled Sources

Many genealogical and historical organizations have compiled death information from a variety of sources, including obituaries and cemetery records, and made it available on index cards, microfiche, books, or online. An excellent example is The Cleveland Necrology File found at

While using any online database or published source it is a good practice to see what information is included. The following is the About the Database section for the Cleveland Necrology file:

This database was produced from a microfilmed copy of an alphabetical card file containing local cemetery records and newspaper death notices gathered by the staff of the Cleveland Public Library. A small collection of records from the Cleveland Bureau of Vital Statistics and some indexed items from the Annals of Cleveland were also part of the original card file and are also included in the database. The newspaper source material consists of paid notices which were published in the following newspapers: Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1850-1975, the Cleveland Herald, 1833, 1847-1848, 1876, 1878-1879 and the Cleveland Press, August 16, 1941 - 1975. Note: This file is not an official or complete record of deaths in the Cleveland area during those years. It was not always customary during this time period for individuals to use paid newspaper notices. In addition, the cemetery records included in this database may not be complete.

For necrology information after 1975, please use the Cleveland News Index at

Published and online County Histories containing sections with Biographical Sketches, also known as "Mug Books", give information on a person and their family that usually contained the place of death and a death date or at least the year. If the article just says that someone was deceased, be sure to check the original publication date and record that the person had died before that date. Published Family History books also give death information.

Problem Solving

Remember that if a name is not found in an index, that may only mean that the name was not found in the index. If the record should be there it could have been missed while compiling the index or entered incorrectly.

While working from known to unknown a researcher will often start with a recently deceased relative and then locate their death records. It is then possible to find that person's ancestors if they are buried with their parents or if the information is given in associated records. A Will or probate file can help to identify their children. The probate record of their parent can help to identify siblings.

If the person's death place is unknown and they cannot be found in one of the countrywide indexes, then do the following:

    • Use Census Records to narrow down the date range and find last place that they lived.

    • Check any State census to help further narrow down the death date range.

    • Check for a statewide or local death index.

    • Check historical maps to determine the jurisdictional boundaries around the time of death.

Once you have a place

Check with the state or local genealogy society, the Everton's Handybook for Genealogists, or the county GenWeb Project via to see if death certificates are available for that jurisdiction and time period. The websites should tell if there are any online or published indexes. The jurisdictional or county GenWeb site should have information on how to obtain a copy of a certificate. Check to see if a "genealogical copy" is available for a lower fee.

Do a place name search online using the LDS Family History Library Catalog, to see if copies of indexes or actual certificates have been microfilmed and are available for rental at a local Family History Library. Microfilms might also be available from State archives.

If the death occurred in a smaller town or area then check with the cemeteries that were in existence at the time they died. Local historical societies often have the records for older cemeteries or they know where they are located.

If there is not a death index then look for records that are created annually that list living people such as city or telephone directories, and tax or voter records. Check each year until an entry is no longer listed. Keep looking for a few more years to see if they were just missed or moved away for a short while and came back. If someone appears in all directories through 1939 and then is missing they could have died as early as the last half of 1938 while the directory was still being assembled and published.

Census Mortality Schedules were created for 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. If someone died within a year of the census they should have been listed.

How Informed Was The Informant?

If the informant was very close to the deceased, then they obviously might be upset and their recollections of the facts could be distorted. If that person is only a casual acquaintance, the value of the information may be questionable. An issue of whether or not the person had knowledge of the facts in the first place may surface.

The probate record of Abbot Ellis and the death records of his daughter-in-law Mary Coleman Ellis Berkey give different accounts about who were the parent's of Beulah.

The following compiled information on the death of Mary E. Berkey was found at the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History in Boulder, Colorado. From this information it appears as if Beulah, who married R. L. Wright, is the daughter of Mary.

[Compiled death information for Mary Berkey]

    • The Family of Abbott Ellis from Bureau County, Illinois

  • Abbott Ellis (1812 - 30 Jan 1894) married Matilda E. Durham and had the following four children:

      • Lucy J. Ellis married Perry Waldron

      • Miletus Watson Ellis (1842-1881) married Mary Coleman (1843-1908) and they had 4 children

        • Frances Matilda Ellis (1866-1891) married John G. Baldwin and had

          • Richard Baldwin and Nellie May Baldwin

            • Frances was killed in the July 1891 train wreck near Aspen. Colorado

        • Frank L. Ellis married Mary Lewis and had Clarence - they were also killed in the train wreck

        • Lucy Lenore Ellis married Duncan F. Brown on 14 November 1885

          • Beulah Brown was born in February 1887

            • Lucy had died by 1894.

        • Sarah Louise (Sadie) Ellis married Granville Johnson (my great-grandparents)

      • John W. Ellis married Anna Putcamp and they had seven children

      • Cynthia Ellis died at the age of 14.

The 1896 Bureau County Illinois probate file for Abbot Ellis shows John W. Ellis as the executor and that copies were served on John W. Ellis, Lucy Waldron, Sadie Johnson, Dick Baldwin, Nellie Baldwin, and Bulah Brown. This would have been the standard distribution of an estate with portions going to his living children and the children of his deceased children. The file stated that "Dick, Nellie, and Beulah are all infants."

Sometime after Miletus had died on 27 October 1881 in Castle Rock Colorado his widow Mary married Virgil Berkey. Virgil died in 1896.

The 1900 Census for Boulder Colorado lists Mary E. Berkey, age 47 (correct age was 57), with a 13 year-old daughter Beulah. When Mary died in 1908, in Boulder Colorado, the informant was R. L. Wright. The 3 August 1908 newspaper stated that "Mary died at the home of her daughter Mrs. R.L. Wright last night."

I have an old photograph of a young girl with the name Buelah Brown written on the back. She looks very similar to photos of both her mother Lucy and her grandmother Mary. It appears that with her father dying before she was born and her mother dying sometime before she was seven years old she was raised by her grandmother Mary Coleman Ellis Berkey.

  • [2009: It turned out that Duncan Brown had left Lucy and their daughter. They were eventually divorced in Leadville, Colorado. The divorce papers stated that they had a 5 year old daughter named Beulah Brown.

These two death records show the difference between the primary evidence, someone died, and the secondary evidence about ages, names, and relationships. Abbot Ellis' probate would not list Beulah Brown if she were a Berkey and not his direct descendant - his great grand-daughter.

A few questions still need to be answered: Did Beulah really know who her parents were? Did Virgil and Mary adopt her? If they had, would an adoption make her grandmother become her mother?

What Did Your Ancestors Leave?

What fortune did your ancestors leave? They left records containing information and clues to other records that will let their descendants learn more about them and their family. If you search, you too will unearth death records that lead you to a treasure trove of rich sources in your family lines.