Death Certificates: Both a Primary and Secondary Source
When conducting genealogical research, it is important to remember that some documents are considered a primary source, and some are considered secondary. College history classes spend entire lectures discussing the nuances between the two, but suffice it to say that a primary source is one created as close to the actual event as possible with participants in that event providing the information. A secondary source was created after the event took place and by individuals who likely were not direct participants.
Some records are considered both a primary and a secondary source. An example of such a document is a death certificate. On a death certificate, primary source information would include the date and place of the death, the cause of death, and the location of the cemetery and the funeral home. This is because the death is the main subject of the document, and information regarding the deceased’s passing is testified to by a doctor or other individual who was there, and who can make an accurate, eyewitness statement.
Secondary information would include the deceased’s birth date, birth location, and the names and birth places of the parents. This information is the responsibility of the informant, who, despite often being a family member or friend, was not typically present at the actual birth of the individual, and is often providing this information second- or even third-hand.
As a result, it is extremely important to consider who provided both the primary and the secondary information. Keep in mind, too, that if the informant was a close family member, the individual may have recalled the facts from memory at a time of stress and grieving. Determining the identity of the informant will help you understand their state of mind when providing the names and dates to the registrar, and help evaluate the accuracy of the information.
In most American states, death certificates were not mandated by the civil authorities until the 20th century, though occasionally certain larger cities began doing so earlier. Additionally, many jurisdictions have privacy laws restricting access to all but immediate family members if the ancestor died within the past 20-25 years. If you’re able to find one, however, they can be invaluable resources.
Four methods for locating death certificates:
- Consult the large databases, such as FindaGrave.com, FamilySearch.org, MyHeritage.com, and Ancestry.com. Even if you’re unable to obtain the actual death record, check this link at FamilySearch.org for their newest obituary collection.
- Research the county where the death took place, using a search engine (like Google, for example). Knox County, Indiana is an example of a county that has an index of their death records online provided by the Knox County library: “Knox County Death Indexes 1921-2002.” The states of Missouri and Utah also have free access to their death certificates on their own state government websites. California allows anyone, even a non-relative, to order an informational copy of any death record.
- Where possible, always obtain the original death certificate rather than relying on the indexed information. If the certificate is not available online, order the document from the county or state where the death took place. Though not free, the fee is usually only about $20 or less, and the information found on the death certificate is often worth the $$ you’ll spend. An example of an outstanding state archive is the one run by the State of Wyoming. They provide a user-friendly website and are efficient in sending death certificates issued after 1909 in a timely manner. Cook County, Illinois (Chicago and its environs) has its death and other historic vital records digitized. While they’re behind a pay-wall, once you place your order you’re able to download the document immediately, rather than waiting several weeks for the mail.
- If you’re in the Salt Lake City area, stop by the Family History Library. It has vast collections of death records on microfilm – many of which are not yet available in image-form online. A prime example is New York City – if you have ancestors who died in this massive metropolis up through the 1940s, the FHL has multiple reels of film containing just these millions of death documents. A visit is absolutely worth it! (Remember, too, that if you’re not in the Utah area, Legacy Tree Genealogists can obtain these records for you! Contact us and let us know how we may be of service.)
As always, don’t forget to be creative and patient! New collections are becoming available all the time, and it’s an exciting time to be a genealogist!