Vitally Vital Death Records

by Ruby Coleman

Many a pedigree chart or family group sheet goes without a date of death. This may be because the researcher has not gone above and beyond to look for a death record. Just say "death record" and a certificate filed in the state where the deceased died comes to mind. More should come to mind! Vital statistics were required and recorded on a state level close to the turn of the 20th century. Each state had their own requirements and dates when this recording would begin. Physicians, undertakers and bereaved families had their own ideas on recording death statistics.

Each state varies as to compliance of submitting the information. For example Georgia required vital information to be submitted in 1919. Births and deaths were actually being recorded by 1922 and it is estimated 90% completeness was not being seen until 1928. Does your ancestor fall into that gap? Regulations varied and it is a good idea to check for this information on Internet sites or through guide books such as The Handy Book and Ancestry's Red Book (both have recently been updated).

Prior to the turn of the century, or the date a state began requiring the registration of vitals, records were often kept on a county basis within courthouse records. Vital records were kept on a town basis in New England. Many of these records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library (LDS) in Salt Lake City. Check their online catalog at Microfilm can be borrowed at Family History Centers.

Pre 1900 vital records can also be found in a variety of other places. Consider checking for obituaries, burial records, cemetery records, mortality schedules, city registers and church records. On the home front look for family Bibles. City directories will often show widows and by checking them over a period of time you can deduce when a person died. If your post 1900 research comes up empty handed on a state regist ered vital record, all of the above are also helpful.

Death records are twofold. The personal and statistical information is supplied by a person who had knowledge of the deceased, usually a relative. In some instances the person may not be a relative. This information varies in consistency and accuracy. The other portion of a death record is supplied closer to the time of death by a person (usually the physician) who had first hand knowledge of the time, date, location and cause of death. If the death certificate does not contain information on place of birth and names of parents, look for more death certificates for other family members. Always compare locations and time periods with other records. Is there a variance between a death certificate and an obituary?

In the 21st century we are experiencing some problems in obtaining death records. Some states are enforcing laws that release vital records only to immediate family members and some release only records for specific periods of time. You may be asked to fill out the application explaining the purpose (genealogy or family history) along with identification as to your relationship and also include personal identification. Most certainly these laws will never be relaxed. Death records are being posted to Internet and are helpful as starting points for individuals. Some of these are available to subscribers at databases such as and others are on state or society web pages, such as Illinois death records for 1916-1950 at

Have you gone above and beyond in your quest for death information? The extra effort to find more information will glean great results and fill in those gaps on your ancestral charts and family group sheets.

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