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When researching your family there are several records available to the public to help you in your quest. Using the information you gathered from relatives will make obtaining these records a lot easier. From birth, death and marriage certificates, census, cemetery, immigration and military records, these documents will help to fill in missing pieces as well as connect you with your ancestors. Specifically, let’s look at death certificates, how to find them and the type of information they have to offer genealogists.
Before I got my hands on census records, my favorite records were death certificates. This sounds a bit morbid, but for genealogy purposes they can provide you with information about the deceased’s birth, life and death. In reference to their birth, you’ll usually learn their place of birth, sex and color. The part I love most about these records though is that they usually list the names of the deceased’s parents, as well as their place of birth. These pieces of information can help you add to your tree as well as point you in the right direction to look for the birth certificates of the deceased and their parents.
Along with providing information about a person’s birth, death certificates give us some information about their life. Some of the information that may be included is their occupation or if they were a U.S. war veteran – as well as their residence at the time of their death. The best part, however, is that it also tackles marital status. If the person was married their spouse’s name is usually listed. I cannot tell you how many times a death certificate has helped me discover the maiden names of my female ancestors.
Finally, death certificates supply you with details about the date, location and cause of death. They also include the person’s age at the time of their death and place of burial. Knowing the place of burial for your ancestor can be helpful in finding others who may be related since it isn’t uncommon to find family buried nearby. Most importantly, I have always made a point of looking into the cause of death in case it could be something that might afflict future generations. The more you know about your family’s medical history the better chance you have at prevention.
Now that we’ve covered why a death certificate is an important tool for a genealogist, let’s jump into how to get your hands on them. There are a few different ways to go about getting a copy; it is just a matter of knowing where to look. The most common way is by sending a request to the State Vital Records Office or town hall in which the death took place. Making a request for a death certificate is a lot easier than it sounds, so don’t panic. In many cases you can submit your request by mail or online – just expect to pay a $15-$20 fee for each record requested.
When submitting a request you are simply sending a letter asking for a copy of the document. In order for the office to find it in their records you need to provide them with some details about your ancestor. Information you want to include in your request would be the deceased’s full name along with any nicknames or alternative spellings, their sex, date and place of their death. If you don’t have an exact date of death, be sure to include a span of years to have searched. Other information that’s helpful to include are the names of the deceased’s spouse and parents. The more information you’re able to supply the office with, the better your chances are of your ancestor’s record being found.
Finally you need to provide some information about yourself and get your request sent out. In the letter you want to include your relationship to the deceased and your intentions with the record. You also want to include your name, the date of your request, your address and signature. Once your letter is complete, mail it off with a self-addressed stamped envelope along with a check or money order to cover the document fees. Once your request has been sent off it’s just a matter of having a little patience and waiting for a response, this may take a few weeks. There have been times where I have submitted a request and my ancestor was not found. In that case, my check was returned and the state vitals office or town hall were extremely helpful in giving me suggestions on other steps I might take.
Death certificates can be an extremely helpful tool when researching your family, however when you think of the cost for obtaining one for each of your ancestors, or even select relatives, it can get expensive. This is why I suggest Ancestry.com. For the cost of two requests a month through a State Vital Records Office or town hall you can have access to all of Ancestry.com’s databases. One of those is their Death Records collection, which gives you the opportunity to search civil, church, cemetery and obituary records for your ancestor.
Unlike sending in a request to a state vital office or town hall, Ancestry.com gives you instant access to millions of records. In their collections you may find links to actual images of the death certificates you are looking for. If for some reason you are unable to find your ancestor’s death certificate on Ancestry they also provide links to state vital records offices for every state in the U.S. Through these links you can check each states restrictions, fees and request procedures. While patiently waiting for a response, you can continue your work on Ancestry.com searching hundreds of databases, uncovering new leads, discovering new ancestors and meeting other members who may be related. Just beware: Once you’ve been bitten by the genealogy bug, you’re history.
By Kris Williams