Death Certificates
The First Step Into The Past

by Christine Sievers

In the first few articles, we were dealing with the living and what you had at hand. Remember the key point of genealogical research- start from the present and work backwards.

First, let's review what you've done so far. You have started talking to your known relatives, particularly the elderly. This will be an ongoing process. You have begun some rudimentary family group sheets from the information that you have gathered, noting where each bit of information came from. Although, at this point, you do not have many documents, what you have will be the clues you need to start your search for records.

Now, you will move into the past. Using the advice in my article, Finding Your Focus, start with one family line. Gather together those family group sheets, and start a surname file. For now, concentrate on your direct line. You can work on the corollary lines (aunts, uncles, and cousins) later. Usually, male lines are the easiest to trace because of females losing their surnames when marrying. This will be an issue for another article.

To start, you should work with the easiest- either your mother's or father's paternal line. The line you choose will be the one for which you have the most clues. The experience you gain in your beginning genealogical research will help you when you tackle your more difficult lines.

Start with the first dead male ancestor in that line. The first task is to get his death certificate. Let's assume that the relatives you have spoken to in that line do not have a copy of it. You will have to search for it. To get a death certificate, you need to know where that person died. This is sometimes not as simple as it seems. As when that the person died where he did not live most of his life. For now, we will look into a simple search- you know the state and town where he died.

This is where the Internet has been a great boon to genealogists. USGenWeb Project State Pagesis a volunteer project hosted by RootsWeb. On this page you will find links to all of the states. Each state site is set up a bit differently. You will be searching for information on where the state's vital records are kept, specifically, death records. This link may be on the first page or on a site map of this state. Take the time to become familiar with the site, as you will probably be mining it for further information.

States vary on where they keep their records, much depending on the date of the record you are searching for. You will most likely need the county where the death occurred. Most, if not all, state sites in this project have a way to find out in which county your town is located. Once you find where the death record is located, there will be information on how to obtain it.

What information can you expect to find on a death certificate? Besides the obvious, date and cause of death, you may find information on where they were born, how long they have been in the United States if an immigrant, if they were a widow, their parents names- including their mother's maiden name, what their occupation was, and more. But, be aware, most of this information was given by another person, sometimes not even a relative. The certificate will tell you who and what their relationship was to the deceased. This makes it second hand; and remember it was given at a time the person was grieving for the deceased. A death certificate will be just one of many documents you obtain to verify information on your ancestors.

My next article will cover how to overcome some of the stumbling blocks in a less straight forward search.

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