Though Webster’s Dictionary defines death as “a permanent cessation of all vital functions . . . the end of life,” genealogists have a different take on the matter. When vital functions end, vital records take over. To family history researchers, “The End Is the Beginning Is the End.” More than a song title from the alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins, this saying is the mantra for genealogical researchers throughout their journey to trace family history. What do these intrepid genealogy researchers pack first in their ancestry search suitcase? Why, the handy death certificate, of course, because death certificates hold a wealth of information for the living. Join me on my trek as I analyze three death certificates from three different decades.
Primary Information vs. Secondary Information
Before we begin, it is important for you to understand the difference between primary and secondary information, which is the way genealogists classify data in broad terms. Primary information is information that is witnessed and recorded close to the event. For example: a death certificate may include the time and cause of death as witnessed by a doctor, and subsequently recorded at the time. This is considered to be primary information.
Secondary information is based on someone’s memory or recollection. For instance, a family member may be asked for the names of the decedent’s parents. The information the family member gives is to the best of their recollection, but is it always correct? This information is considered to be secondary information. It may or may not be accurate. That’s why it is best to follow up secondary information with further research to show proof.
A Little History on Death Certificates
The 1880s were the beginning of a more uniform registration of vital records. Many states recorded deaths earlier than the 1880s, but the information was spotty and varied. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that death records became more standardized.
Analyzing an 1890 Huntington County, Indiana, death certificate for Thomas J. Hutsell, I found that a very limited amount of primary information was recorded. For example, Thomas Hutsell’s age was reported to be 59 years, and he was listed as “married.” This particular data – age and marital status – is considered secondary information, because it was not reported by Thomas, rather by another source. Chances are, Thomas’s wife provided the information, but the record does not indicate from whom the information was gathered – in other words, the identity of the “informant” is unknown.
The death certificate also reports that Thomas was a “male” who died at Warren, Indiana, on February 10, 1890 from an accidental broken neck. It was signed by a doctor, who probably diagnosed the cause of death and recorded the information soon after the event. The doctor, therefore, is a primary source, because he could testify to the accuracy of the information on the death certificate. What is missing from the certificate, however, is the funeral and cemetery information.
By 1915, the majority of forms generated by departments of health included more genealogical information, which is a boon to the family genealogist today. However, bear in mind, the new information included is considered secondary information, so the family genealogist must analyze this information for accuracy. For example, on the 1915 death certificate for my g-g-grandfather Daniel Folk from Huntington County, Indiana, his name was spelled incorrectly as “Falk.” Apart from that error, at least the location of burial was noted as “St. John Cemetery.”
This additional information is considered secondary. For it to be primary, a trip to the cemetery is required to confirm this data. Daniel’s age was recorded as 59 years, 10 months, and 15 days, which is more exact, but not necessarily more accurate. The March 14, 1834 birth date and the listing of Ohio as the birth state are confirmed by a primary source – an entry in the family bible. Because names and dates in a family bible are usually recorded shortly after events, it is considered a primary source of information.
Another big addition to the 1915 death certificate was the inclusion of Daniel’s spouse’s name. In the case of my g-g-grandfather’s death certificate, his wife’s name was also misspelled as Catherine “Falk,” instead of “Folk.” The listing of her name would would have been initially considered as secondary information; however, based on my additional research and personal knowledge of my g-g- grandmother – proving that her name should have been spelled “Folk” – this information is now primary evidence.
Catherine was also listed as “wife,” (which is secondary information), but the information was subsequently confirmed by a marriage record (considered primary information).
Starting in the early 1990s, death certificates included more detailed information. I analyzed a 1992 death certificate for Marvin Hutsell from the Indiana State Board of Health in Indianapolis, Indiana.
- Box 1 states the decedents’ name, which was probably supplied by the decedent prior to death, and would be considered primary information.
- Boxes 2, 3a and b, (sex, time, and date of death) were witnessed by the doctor and considered to be primary evidence.
- Box 4 is the social security number which can be verified with the social security death index, also considered primary information.
- Boxes 5a, 6, 7 and 8 (age, birth information and military questions) were probably provided by the decedent prior to death, which would make it primary information; however, box 20a lists the informant as “Alta,” who is the same person listed in Box 11 as the surviving spouse. While Alta may very well have had such knowledge, the information she offered is still considered secondary.
- Box 9 gives the place of death and the address, which were witnessed by the informant Alta, who would also have personal knowledge of the information in Boxes 10 through 17 (marital status, occupation, residence, citizenship, nationality, race and education.) Though normally this information would be considered secondary evidence, Alta actually witnessed these events and could testify to them, thereby making it primary evidence.
- The next two boxes concern Daniel’s parents’ names and birth places. As informant, Alta provided the information based on her memory. In this case, Alta’s recollection of her in-laws’ names and birth places would be considered secondary information. Even though Alta had personal knowledge of her in-laws, the information should be double-checked. If a present-day family genealogist did not witness the events, and the decedent’s wife provided the information, then the genealogist must find a primary source for the information – in this case, the bible and marriage records serve as primary proof. If the decedent had died without survivors to act as informants, and this information had not been supplied by the decedent prior to death, then the boxes would have been left blank.
- Boxes 21 through 25 are primary information supplied by the funeral home. The remaining information on the death certificate is primary data directly linked to the death and could be testified to by the doctor.
The death certificate can tell a story about a decedent, but it is only as good as the storyteller. For the rest of the story, RecordClick can help you fill in the blanks. The professional family history researchers at RecordClick provide genealogy research services that will help you solve your ancestor search questions.