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The Compleat Genealogical Database: Death Data

When we record deaths, too often we are so excited to find a date of death that we overlook other treasures at our fingertips. Death data is much more than just a date on a tombstone.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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Understanding Death

Novices are often frustrated when they discover that the courthouse in the little hometown where Grandpa lived his entire life does not have any information on his death. Many deaths are recorded elsewhere for a very simple reason. Deaths are recorded in the county or parish where the deceased died – not where they lived.

If Grandpa died at the big city hospital 50 miles away, in another county, that's the county where his death was recorded. If he died on a beach in Jamaica, that's where his death was recorded. If he died in a traffic accident during a vacation drive along Route 1 in California, that's where his death was recorded.

A death that was recorded outside of Grandpa's hometown tells us more about him. Why did he die in Vermilion County, Illinois, when he lived in Garden City, Iowa? Was he visiting family there? Was he in a hospital there? Was he in an accident there? Was he a migrant worker? Was he in school? Was he seeking medical treatment at the Veteran's Administration hospital in Vermilion County? These are all questions that need to be answered and they tell us a lot about Grandpa's life.

Wake or Visitation

Whether your ancestor had a wake or visitation reveals something about their belief system and the church or synagogue that may hold some information about your relative. If there was a wake, it was probably held at the family home, until more recent years. The casket would have been open, and people could see the body. If the term "wake" was used, the family was probably Irish, although the term has become more common.

If the term visitation was used, the casket was probably open and the family was probably not Jewish. In the Jewish faith, the service typically begins at the cemetery and there is no opportunity for viewing of the body.

Funeral folders [funeral cards or programs] are a genealogist's guide to funerals. Printed funeral folders have been common for at least a hundred years in the United States. The cover is some sort of artwork but may include the deceased's name or, in more recent times, their photograph. Inside is the death information, along with the name of the pastor conducting the service. This is your key to identifying your ancestor's faith, in most cases. Usually the family's pastor conducts the service.

Most funerals include music. If there are musically inclined relatives, they are usually the first choice, unless they were so close to the deceased that they can't bring themselves to perform. The musicians are listed in the funeral folder.

The folder also identifies the funeral home. Funeral homes keep records of funerals and can be a good research source. You'll find transcriptions of funeral home records in most genealogical libraries. The amount of data recorded varies considerably but they are always a good source.

Most funerals include a service held either at the funeral home or a church. After the service, pallbearers carry the casket to the ambulance [or limousine] and then from the ambulance to the gravesite. The pallbearers tend to be either relatives outside the immediate family or close friends of the family. Their names appear in the funeral folder. Research them for information about your family. In more recent times, women sometimes serve as pallbearers. But traditional pallbearers have been men.

There is often a guestbook for visitors and guests at the funeral. Determining their connection to the deceased can provide sources for photographs, family stories, and other data.


There are alternatives to the traditional casket with a tombstone in the local graveyard. Among these is cremation.

It is against the Jewish belief to be cremated. If you have Great-Grandma's ashes in an urn, she probably was not Jewish, or of several other beliefs. Cremation was somewhat common among Universalists in Peoria, Illinois, in the earlier part of the 1900s.

Sometimes a tombstone is erected as a memorial, even though the deceased was cremated. Whether a person was cremated or not, a tree may be have been planted in their honor or a plaque mounted in a church memorial garden.

There may have been a memorial service, documented with newspaper accounts or memorial folders, commemorating a spreading of ashes following a cremation. There used to be a service in Illinois that created jewelry from ashes and returned them to loved ones.

As we look to the future of genealogy, we need to be aware of other alternatives such as green burials. The goal is a natural burial that does not taint the ground with embalming fluid and allows the body to return the earth through natural decomposition. Many green burials take place in traditional cemeteries. However, there are sites such as White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Washington State that are devoted to green burials. is already collecting information about green burial cemeteries, which will be useful to genealogists, especially in the future. Green burials often forego the traditional gravestone. These are not cemeteries where genealogists can merely walk the cemetery recording information.

Cause of Death

Genealogical databases have fields for reporting the cause of death. This is helpful information for future generations when someone dies from an inheritable condition. It also tells us more about the person and their life, who they were surrounded by at the end, and other personal information. Don't dismiss this information. If Great-Grandpa died from a gunshot wound, it could mean a number of things. It could even mean he was a police officer who was shot in the line of duty. There would likely be news coverage of that event.


Death takes all forms and so does the human acknowledgement of it. Recording as much of this information as possible is the genealogist's responsibility. Death is not always simple.

Watch for the following upcoming articles:

  1. Property ownership
  2. Legal events
  3. Marital status
  4. Politics

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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