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When my husband and I were house-hunting awhile back, we looked at a
house adjoining a small pioneer cemetery nearly concealed by trees.
Which I thought was cool—you could see the area’s history in the
names on the worn stones. My husband said, “Quiet neighbors.”
But a few friends looked stricken and said they might have to think twice about coming
So it goes for many of us genealogists. We’re fascinated by cemeteries and death records;
other people think that’s creepy. But in the spirit of genealogy and Halloween, here
are some tips on finding your ancestors’ death records:
Death records are generally available after the state passed a law that counties or
towns had to keep records and forward them to the state health department or vital
records office. To find out when that was for your ancestor’s state, download
our free US Vital Records Chart (PDF document) from here. Compliance with the
law wasn’t always 100 percent, so keep that in mind.
You can get websites and contact information for state vital records offices
from the Centers for Disease Control Where
to Wrote for Vital Records listing.
Restrictions on public access to death records are generally shorter than those for
birth records—depending on the state, it’s usually 25 to 50 years if you’re not immediate
family. Check the state vital records office website for this information.
If your ancestor died before statewide vital recordkeeping began, there still may
be a record. Many counties, cities and towns started keeping death records before
the state said they had to. For example, Ohio death records don’t officially begin
until 1908, but the city of Cincinnati started keeping records about 1865 (yay for
me!), and they’re online
here. With some gaps, St. Louis began registering deaths in 1850. They’re in the Missouri
Birth and Death records, Pre-1910 database at Missouri Digital Heritage. The database
gives you a microfilm number for the image of the register at the Missouri State Archives;
and the registers
also are digitized on subscription site Ancestry.com.
The town or county health department or a local genealogical society where your ancestor
lived can tell you when death recording began there. Remember that these early records
often aren’t complete.
To find online death indexes or record collections, search online for the county,
city, town or state name and death index or death record. The free FamilySearch.org
has indexes to death information from a variety of sources for most states; also search
the catalog at Ancestry.com. If you find your ancestor in an index, check the
site to see how you can get the original record.
No official death record to be found? Look to other sources, such as newspaper obituaries
and death notices, cemeteries, church records, US census mortality schedules and probate
Learn more about tracking down death information for your ancestors from these Family
Tree Magazine expert resources:
Creative With Death Records video class: Learn how to go beyond the obvious sources
to find the information you need on when your ancestor died.
Tree University First Steps: Using Death Records course (You can register
for the current session until Friday, Nov. 2; the next
session starts Nov. 26.)
guide to cemetery research article download