We are always told to work from the known to the unknown. In the beginning that means getting our birth certificate and the birth and marriage records of our parents. At some point, though, we begin to gather death certificates and death records and eventually will be researching in a time when traditional death certificates were not recorded. In cases such as these, researchers must turn to alternatives.
Unfortunately genealogists often abandon the search for the record of death when a vital record, as in a death certificate, cannot be found or does not exist. In these cases, the researcher should turn attention to other types of records that may have been published or created at the time of the ancestor's death.
Deaths are recorded in many records.
Privately Held Sources: Bible and Burial Records
Bible records are often forgotten. You may have to do some investigating to find out who has the family bible but once you find it, you'll often find evidence of an ancestor's death. Often, bible records have been transcribed or deposited. Check the genealogical societies and historical societies in the locations where your ancestors lived. Ask your relatives. Check the Family History Library Catalog as the Bible may have been microfilmed.
You will also want to visit a site called Bible Records Online run by Tracy St. Claire. This amazing site lists bibles saved by Tracy, who seeks them out, sometimes purchasing them. She transcribes them and scans the pages with family information in order to make them available online for free.
Burial records from a church may be easier to find. If you know the religion of the ancestor, check for church records through the Family History Library Catalog. You may need to contact an archive for that denomination. The Genealogist's Address Book by Elizabeth Petty Bentley offers addresses for the various repositories.
Published Resources: City Directories, Necrologies, and Obituaries
City directories may include a published list of those who died within the year. Beyond the name of the deceased person, you'll sometimes find information such as age at time of death and the date of death. Some might even include the cause of death. Few realize that females are often identified as "widow of.." in city directories following the death of a husband. Such information has offered me the proof I needed that I was tracing the right family. City directories for the larger cities are on microfilm up through the mid-1930s and are available through your local Family History Center.
Necrologies are published obituaries, generally of those belonging to an association, religious group, society, and educational facility to name just a few. There is an extensive Quaker necrology, for instance, that few researchers are aware of. Using the Family History Library Catalog on CD-ROM for personal use, you can run a search on the word "Necrology" to see what has been deposited in the Family History Library. Also, check local public library catalogs to see what necrologies they have.
Obituaries are perhaps the best alternative to death certificates because they often include the names of parents or other identifying information that can help you trace the family back another generation. Obituaries have been transcribed by many genealogical societies, and are found in libraries with genealogical collections. Sometimes, you may need to hire a professional genealogist to visit the newspaper morgue and go through the actual back issues. Other times you can get the newspapers on microfilm through interlibrary loan at your local public library.
These are just a few of the alternatives you may find. For information on these and other resources, you may want to check out Sharon DeBartolo Carmack's latest book Your Guide to Cemetery Research. While the bulk of the book is on cemeteries, the first chapter is on the various records that may hold clues to where a person was buried. Those records are the same records that can aid you in your research of a death of an ancestor.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.