GenToday-L Archive

Listen To The Dead

by Dianna Blair

PUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION in the March 1998 edition of GenToday-L

You think you have hit that commonly known brick wall? There isn't a researcher one that hasn't at one time or another hit a dead end, and hit it hard. Are you up against that right now? My advice is to listen to the dead.

The dead can sometimes still talk to us. If you are fortunate enough to have a death date, you can search out a death certificate. To do this, contact the county clerk for the county in which the person you are researching died. This is important to remember, and bears repeating. Check for records in the county where death occurred. This may not necessarily be the same county in which that person is buried. Check with the county clerk, charges for copies do vary. If your ancestor's death record is not found in the county records, then check with your state archive. See how simple that is. Well, as many of you have already found out, it isn't really that simple. Let me give you some drawbacks, budget savers, and some surprise sources of information.

Ideally, someone in the family has given you the correct date of death for your great great grandmother Sally and the exact location of her grave. You contact the county clerk, give them the date, 2 weeks later you have in your warm little hand a copy of the death certificate. You start looking it over and find the birthdate of Sally, along with her husband's name. You also notice what state she was born in. Her parents name, where they were born, along with Sally's mother's maiden name. This is wonderful, you can now go on to start looking for census records and documentation on the next limb of the lovely family tree. But guess what, ideally doesn't always work. You can't find a census record that shows her with her parents. Could be that the oldest son, who filled out a certificate in the middle of his pain and grief, forgot that mom grew up with her aunt Sue so you have a totally different surname to start looking for. To add to th at, Sally was visiting daughter Ann when she passed away. Her death records are in a different county from where she was laid to rest. So, the drawbacks of death certificates are simple. The information may not be completely accurate, the records may not be storehoused where you think it should, and don't forget that depending on the year you are researching it may not even exist. On the up side, death certificates are considered documentation sources for proof of lineage.

Let us talk about the cost of death certificates, a wide a varied subject. All the handbooks tell you to contact the state archive for the state you are researching in, send them the specified amount with all the necessary information for them to locate the document you are requesting. Does this sound like a lot of double talk. In my opinion it is. I have through experience built a much cheaper route to obtain copies of source documentation (in the case of this article, death certificates). I am going to share it with you now. The first thing I do is to research the assumed location of death. I stress assumed, due to the fact that I have a great great grandfather that was assumed to have died in Hill County in Texas with his wife. Years of searching went by with out luck. A member of a related line sent me copies of letters his ancestor wrote. In those letters written to his wife was mention of the death of my great great grandfather near Ft. Smith, Arkansas. We still have not found a grave, but at least now we know where not to look. Back to the point. Once I have the town, and county I can then contact the county clerk's office. Now, I usually call due to the fact that I am not good at waiting, but a query by mail is acceptable. I have done this and enclose a stamped post card for the office's reply. I do not know about other states, but Texas usually charges $9.00 for a copy of a death certificate. I have found that the counties handle these matters differently, some are quite a bit more helpful than others. I have also paid charges as low as $1.00 in one county to the $9.00 in another. Depending on the date again, deaths were not required to be recorded until after 1900 (again varies by state) and where not generally recorded well until the 1930's when Social Security benefits started being used. Researching farther back than that? Don't give up. I have some suggestions for alternate sources.

You have exhausted all avenues of sources. You checked with the county clerk's office. She suggested another office to inquire of. You have even queried the state archives. You have given up. Well don't. Here are a few places you might want to look at. Back up to the location of death. The first thing I suggest to anyone doing research is to find and contact the closest genealogical society or historical society in that area. Locate any possible archived copies of the local newspapers published during the time period you are researching. Contact the local funeral homes and see if any still have old records. I got lucky and even though the funeral home had changed names, it was still in the same family, they sent me the funeral sleeve for an ancestors funeral, listing her maiden name and where she was born. Best of all, after offering to pay for copying cost and postage, they mailed a copy to me with out charge. Obituary notices and funeral home records usually list what church the funeral was held at, from that you may determine a denomination. Depending upon the denomination, you may find a wealth of information in the church records.

Researching the family tree is wonderful, tedious, exciting, exasperating, all in one going from that wonderful excitement of finding an elusive fore father to the hopeless feeling of the old joke that my ancestors were pioneers of the witness relocation program. You may find heroes, town leaders, cowards, or criminals. The search often becomes addictive and all consuming, but well worth the great efforts. The search for documentation is important in that it proves who belonged here and what they contributed. Death certificates in the end, only prove what we already now. The person died.

Reprinted with permission of the author and LoneStar Genealogy




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