If death and taxes are inevitable, like Thanos, how can we ask genealogists, discover a date and place when our ancestor took their last breath when we can't find a death certificate?
Know When Death Certificates Begin
Since genealogy depends on time and location, researchers have to know what organizations created death records for their residents and when.
In many countries and cultures, the population only has access to oral genealogies. FamilySearch is currently working with such countries to capture the knowledge and create supplemental resources for such families.
In other locations, registrations of deaths by government entities began in the 1800s. I discovered that 1 July 1837 is when England and Wales began documenting deaths through local governments, thereby replacing the Church of England’s records of burials as legal proof for the deceased.
In the United States, the dates appearing in local and county death records vary greatly. Some New England towns recorded deaths as early as the 1600s. By contrast, some Southern countries didn't require the legal registration of deaths for all until the 1910s.
When we're searching for our ancestors, we must know the time and place where they lived. Then we must seek out the recordkeeping practices for those locations.
For a live discussion, watch this video.
Alternative Sources for Discovering Our Ancestor's Death Date
While death registration is a fairly modern practice, we can determine a death date using many alternative resources. I've listed them in the order I search, which typically progresses from easier to access to more difficult.
The number and variety of home sources documenting deaths far exceed my ability to name them all. In my personal research, I've found family bibles (or pages from family bibles), Books of Remembrance, photographs of headstones, urns, scrapbooks, journals, funeral programs, memorial quilts, casket flags, laminated obituaries, letters announcing the death of a family, Facebook announcements, and funeral memorial cards.
Another home source is the memory of living relatives and extended family members. My aunt is a walking calendar. She knows the birth and death dates of many in my family. I was a witness to the burial of my mother as I organized and supervised her funeral service. My husband attended his grandfather's funeral.
While memories may fail people at times, sometimes a relative knows more about the death of an ancestor than any published record.
While YOU may not have access to the items listed above, sometimes extended family members have such items tucked away in their drawers, closets, attics, and garages. Ask around in the family before you seek out other sources.
After finally getting over my fear of cemeteries, I fell in love with the possible records that burial grounds and caretaker offices can provide.
Utilize FindAGrave, BillionGraves, and Interment before you seek out records from specific cemetery offices. You might find more than you bargained for!
Then, search out the cemetery offices, where applicable. Some offices have little to no information. Others can provide you with plot maps, purchase agreements, individual interment records, biographical information, and more.
Between 1850 and 1880, the federal census had a special schedule that recorded individuals who died in the 12 months preceding the enumeration dates. Additionally, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota created mortality schedules in 1885. Not overlook these resources for your ancestor's death date.
While the mortality schedule may not assist in your quest, census records can help determine a possible death date for an ancestor. If a relative appears in one census but does not appear in the following enumeration, you MAY have a ten-year range for potential death.
Be sure to conduct no surname research, descendancy research, same-name rule out research, and other strategies to ensure your ancestor isn't hiding in a different name or location. However, if you still can't find your ancestor in a census record after all of these efforts, you could use this evidence as a clue for an ancestor's death.
One especially useful clue appears in the marital status column of the records. If a man or woman indicates they are widowed, you can then use that clue to suggest when their spouse died. While it's possible they lied about their status in a census, it's not as common as the lies in city directories.
City directories are my favorite record collection. You can potentially find an ancestor every year until they move or die. Clues that suggest their death include:
a woman appears in the record as "Widow of".
Relatives continue to reside at the same address of the potentially deceased without mentioning the ancestor.
The ancestor appears in the addendum section of the record, where move-ins, move-outs, and deaths are recorded.
If you see these clues, you can narrow down a potential death year further than a census record.
However, be careful when a woman indicates she is a widow. I have a female ancestor who divorced her husband but recorded that she was a widow in city directories.
While funeral records held by churches seem like an easy collection to explore, only a small percentage of these collections appear online. Thus, church records, which easy to understand, are often more difficult to access than the previous record sets.
However, Findmypast, Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch have church records online worth exploring. Check back often because each website is continually adding new records.
You can also explore archives for specific churches, both online and off. Andy uses the St. Kevern Parish Registers for England regularly. The church records for my Catholic ancestors in Columbus, Ohio, are currently only available via an email request to the church archives.
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I've written about the value of newspapers repeatedly on this blog, so it's no surprise that I'd recommend you turn to newspapers.
Do not limit yourself to obituaries for your ancestor. Seek out notices about the funeral, sheriff sales, land transfers, probate notices, court proceedings, and crime reports.
Pro Tip: Search for articles about surviving parents, siblings, wives, and children who may appear in a feature that mentions when your ancestor may have died.
Also, search for organizations and association notices that may mention memorials for members who have died.
Search for newspaper clippings before wills because you may have clues to when and where to look for additional records listed below.
Each year, more and more wills become available online for browsing, if not searching with forms. As I researched the Townleys of Essex County, New Jersey, and Cincinnati, Ohio, I discovered a wealth of information in wills.
While the will often does not provide a date when an ancestor died, you can use them for clues. The date a will is created, and witnesses give you the earliest date for a death. Meaning the death could not happen before the will was made.
Then notice the date the will was registered with or presented to the court. The person's death could not have happened after this date.
Take the two dates, and now you have a range from when the death happened.
However, not every ancestor wrote a will. This is called dying intestate. If this happens, you may still find probate records for your ancestors, just not a will.
While wills are one type of probate record, more documents of interest help you discover a death date. To learn more about probate records, read my post, "Probate Basics."
You may discover a specific death date, or dates when the probate proceedings began for both ancestors who wrote wills or those with means who died without one.
Be sure to explore the estate states, bonds for executors and administrators, bonds for guardians, and any receipts for debts in a final settlement. You can use clues from each of these documents to further narrow down your ancestor's death date.
If your ancestor served in a military conflict, they may have applied for a pension record. If they worked for a company that provided pensions, beneficiaries might have submitted death information to collect financial aid. Seek out pension records for your ancestor and their surviving relatives.
Passenger Lists - if your ancestor died at sea, the information might appear on the ship manifest or passenger lists.
Social Security Death Indexes - If you're looking for modern relatives in the US, these records are a great starting point.
Coroner's Reports - If a body had an autopsy performed, a coroner issued a report. Such records may provide a death date.
Body Donation Hospitals - If your ancestor donated their body to science, records were created for the transfer. While privacy laws may restrict access to the original records, you may obtain a death date from the receiving institution.
GAR Archives - I've indexed records for the Grand Army of the Republic, (for Union veterans of the Civil War), and they had lists of living members AND the recently deceased from their organization.
Alumni Newsletters - In the Aggie Alumni newsletter, many of the dearly departed are named. Check your alma matters or other association newsletters for such memorandums.
County Histories - These records are often found on the Internet Archive for free and have biographical sketches for leaders in a community. Those sketches often have death dates.
Community Scrapbooks - Check your local archive for community scrapbooks. Many such collections have death notices for members of their local area.
University Special Collections - Universities love to study and preserve history. Search for collections that feature individuals, and you might uncover information about your ancestor's death.
Vertical Files in Archives - To learn more about archives, check out Melissa Barker's, The Archive Lady, lecture Vertical Files: What Are They and How to Use Them.
Tax Records - Eric Wells of Legacy Left Right recommends "searching tax records year by year until your ancestor's name drops off of the records. That may give you a good range of time as to when they died."
Are You Sure They're Dead?
If you're searching for more recent ancestors, you have to ensure they are dead before seeking after a death date. This reminder comes from professional genealogist Miles Meyer.
"Many times people list someone born in the 1920s-1930s as deceased because of "age" without finding a death date. Many of those people are still living. Never assume someone is deceased unless you meet the 110-year rule."
If at any time you would like the assistance of an experienced heir hunter or forensic genealogist, check out our friends over at Legacy Tree Genealogists. and tell them Devon Noel Lee referred you.
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