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Overheard in GenForum: Locating Death Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

May 02, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I'm having trouble finding information on several of my family members. I've found obituaries or pieces of information that mention something about "services from the home" or "body was taken to son's home, with final internment at..." My problem is, where does one get information on these people? Where are the death certificates? I have written to the states that the people died in and they can't find anything. I have written to my state, where the bodies were "returned" and they have nothing. The cemeteries have nothing, other than the name of the person buried there. I want maiden names etc.... and I just can't seem to figure this out. Can someone please shed some light on what to do? -- Debi

A: Many of the records you are trying to locate are considered contemporary records. By that, they are records that have come into existence more recently (generally, in the 1900s). While there are some exceptions, you may not be able to find these records in your research.

This does not mean, however, that there aren't alternative records that could supply you with the information you need. Many of our research problems are solved by so-called vital records substitutes. Before looking at potential alternatives, lets first look at funeral records, their history and your options.

Funeral home records may help when found.

Funeral Home Records

Funeral homes as we know them now are relatively new, most are businesses of the twentieth century. Before 1900, few of our ancestors were embalmed and viewings took place in the family home or other private residence. Today most viewings take place at the funeral home.

While the obituaries you have state that the body was viewed at home, this does not mean that the local mortician wasn't involved. Even if there wasn't a funeral parlor, someone in the town or city was offering the services of the undertaker. So, funeral records may exist, but them may not be where you expect them.

You'll want to determine who the undertaker was in the area where your ancestor died. The best way to do this is to turn your attention to the city directories. Usually city directories have an index to advertisers and the local undertaker was generally one of those who advertised.

Prior to 1882, there were no national associations for undertakers. The first, the National Funeral Directors Association was founded in 1882. A few states, specifically Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had state associations before this time, but only by a year or two.

If the undertaker in question was freelance, or the funeral home in question is no longer in business, you may find that the records still exist. If you haven't done so, check the Family History Library Catalog for possible funeral records. You will find these cataloged under the subject of "business records and commerce." Other alternatives for records would be currently operating funeral homes, as well as the local, county, and state historical societies. You may also want to check with the local library, especially if they have a genealogy department.

Death Records

Vital records are another type of contemporary record. Most states in the United States did not begin keeping birth and death records until the early 1900s. This doesn't mean that the records don't exist, it just means that you won't find them at the state level. In most states, the individual counties began recording vital records at an earlier time. In New England, vital records are found on the town level, and have been in existence since the seventeenth century (though they are incomplete for some years).

County vital records may have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, and can be found in the library catalog that is searchable on the FamilySearch web site. Searching on the county, and then under both "Vital Records" and "Vital Records - Indexes," would show you what is available.

If there are no vital records available for the period in question, you might find church records to be a useful alternative. It is possible that the clerk of the church added some notes about the deceased in his burial record. These notes, while few and far between, may give you the clues you need. If it is a female who is deceased, the clerk may have listed her maiden name or her parents' names.

Other Alternatives

Other alternative records include pension files, obituaries of siblings, death records of siblings. Few of us think to spend the time and energy researching the siblings of our direct line but they are often quite helpful (especially if they died after official vital records were begun in the area).

Marriage records are the oldest of the vital records. When you are looking for maiden names and the names of a female ancestor's parents, these may be your best option. Locating the family in the census as close to the birth of the first child would be the best place to begin such a search for marriage records. At the very least you would find her maiden name, allowing you a surname to investigate in that county.

Another option when finding the family in the census is to look at the neighbors. Look at the names of the children of the family and then see if anyone living nearby shares those names. Many times the now married children would name their children after parents and grandparents. While it is not conclusive, it gives you a crumb to follow in this mysterious trail. You can then follow that up by researching those families, specifically looking for probate of the men, to see which daughters were listed in the will or in the estate papers.

In Conclusion

Depending on when the deaths took place, it is possible that traditional funeral home records and vital statistics do not exist. However, there may be alternative records created at the time that can be found in local archives or libraries.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

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 the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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