Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree -
April/May 2005 Death Certificates and Genealogical Research
Death certificates can be gold mines of
genealogical information or they can be documents full of wrong
information. Sometimes they are both. The person giving the
information about the deceased parent or person may or may not have
known much about his or her background. This is evidenced by the
fact that personal information such as birthdates, birthplaces, and
the spellings of names often contain errors. These mistakes are
often unintentional but sometimes errors have proven to be
deliberate in order to hide family or personal secrets.
Beginners to genealogy often question the need to locate and request
certificates for all of their ancestors. The main complaint stems
from the cost and time involved in locating and requesting such
information. If your goal is locating all the information on your
deceased ancestor, you must take the time and effort to request as
many certificates as you can obtain. Death certificates can be
expensive to obtain and can often be misleading, but they often
furnish many more facts and clues than any other document created
for and about your ancestor.
One of the major advantages of death certificates is the amount of
genealogical family and personal information they may contain.
Usually, the form to be filled out upon the person's death has
spaces for a couple dozen facts about the deceased. If the informant
knows the correct answers, then correct information appears on the
death certificate. It is when the informant does not know the
information that incorrect details appear.
Keep in mind that each state often uses a different format for death
certificates. These forms vary greatly in the amount of information
about the deceased they require or even request. No two states seem
to use the same form.
Information requirements on death certificates have evolved over
time. Death certificates can be obtained from a variety of sources,
usually from the county courthouse or state office of vital records.
In general terms, if a death occurred prior to 1900, the odds favor
contacting the county courthouse first. By the 1920's, most counties
nationwide were sending copies of all death certificates issued in
their jurisdiction to the state office of vital records. The exact
date when the legal requirements mandated this procedure will vary
from state to state.
To obtain a death certificate from a state or county office, contact
information may be obtained by consulting using either of the
following sources: "Handybook for Genealogists" or the "Ancestry Red
Book". These sources will provide the name of the county seat, and
contact information for the courthouse or county health department
that would handle death certificates. Another important companion
source is "Where To Write For Vital Records". This source gives the
addresses for state offices including fees for searches and copies.
Many states now provide the application form online. Some require
the patron to download the from and mail it to a designated address.
Others will allow you to send the completed form electronically
provided you are willing to provide credit card and drivers license
To check for death certificates available online, go to
This is a nation-wide umbrella site with links to each state and
county. If a particular state or county permits online access and
research, this information will be posted on the website. If there
are any other guidelines necessary for access, they will also be
posted as well.
Another avenue for acquiring a certificate of death is the LDS
Family Search website
www.familysearch.org. This site provides access to the
microfilmed records of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
Once on the site, go to the Family History Library catalog icon.
Type in the "state", then "county", and then scroll to the "Vital
Records" listing. This catalog entry will tell you if such-and-such
county's death certificates have been microfilmed. If the answer is
yes, note the specific microfilm number and visit you nearest Family
History Library branch. They can order the microfilm from Salt Lake
City and contact you when the film reaches the branch. You can
search the microfilm and make a copy of the death certificate.
Bryan L. Mulcahy
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634
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