Saturday, November 12, 2016

Death Records - Digging Up Your Ancestors

Good morning all, hope you are having a great weekend. Earlier this week I was invited to speak on death records at our German Genealogy Interest Group. The speaker following me gave a short presentation on the Genealogy Proof Standard (GPS). I figured I would write about my talk and add some of the resources that can help you fulfill the GPS this morning. This blog post will be a little longer than many of my others but it is packed with a great deal of information that I hope is helpful to you in your research.

We all use death records in our family history research. They are a great source of data but not all death records are created equal. One of my favorite sources for death information are the cemetery databases. Many of these databases are crowd source projects where people can contribute information, photographs, documents, etc. to build the information about a person or cemetery. The most popular cemetery database is Find A Grave. Find A Grave was founded in 1995 and currently has over 154 million burial records from around the world. This site is now owned by Ancestry and its records are searchable from Ancestry and FamilySearch. One thing I really like about Find A Grave is that many families are now being linked together on a page. The links allow you to search for other family members quickly and compile your list of names and dates. Also, I like the ability to search for family names in a specific cemetery, county, or state.

Another of the larger online cemetery databases is Billion Graves. Billion Graves is based around a smartphone app which allows you to take pictures, tag them with gps coordinates, and upload them to the cloud. Every record on Billion Graves has a geo-referenced picture of the headstone. Of course the location of the headstone is only approximate and depends on the quality of the satellite data at the time and the phone's gps system, but it does give you a good approximation of the location if you are visiting the cemetery. I like this app because it allows you to take around 200 pictures in an hour and, once they are transcribed, gives researchers a great deal of information. Billion Graves data is searchable on FamilySearch and many of the burial records are linked directly to the person on FamilySearch.

An older site,, contains lists of cemeteries and names. This site was founded in 1997 and has about 6 million records. It is affiliated with GenealogyBank. The site can be useful but has significantly fewer records (only about 6 million) than either Billion Graves or Find A Grave. Also, there are no pictures on this site. Additionally, there is no search capability for individuals, all data are delivered as lists for a specific cemetery. The search functions on this site are for either GenealogyBank records or Google search results, not for the cemetery index itself.

Beyond these larger databases there are several smaller ones that could provide great results. For your ancestors who served in the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs has the Gravelocator database. I have found records from the Civil War, Indian Wars, World War I and II, Vietnam, Korea, etc., on this site. The database includes individuals located in national cemeteries as well as those who had military funerals or markers.

One of the original online genealogy databases, US GenWeb, also has a cemetery database called their Tombstone Project. This is a text list of of individuals buried in a cemetery. You can search for the cemeteries by location and go down the list of burials until you find your person.

One more cemetery site is found on AccessGenealogy. AccessGenealogy was founded in about 2000 and provides a database of cemetery web sites. It does not hold any information itself, but gives you a list of websites that have the information on your specific cemetery.

Now that you have used the various cemetery databases to locate your ancestor, you should have some information on his burial location, dates for death and birth, and possibly some additional family members. Now you can move on to the next set of records, the death records. The death certificates can provide a wealth of information including birth, death and burial dates and places, names of parents and their birth place, other relatives (spouse, children, witnesses), cause of death, duration of illness, and many more pieces of data which are essential to your research.

FamilySearch and Ancestry have great collections of death records available. However, actual death certificates may only be available for a short period of time for each state. For example, Ohio only has death certificates available online for the period between 1908 and 1953. After 1953 you have to rely on other records such as the Social Security Death Index or death certificate indexes. Prior to 1908 you might need to rely on individual county death rolls. Each state has a different set of years where data is available so I recommend looking at the FamilySearch Wiki to see what is available and where to find it. FamilySearch and Ancestry also have indexed records that provide the basic information from the original records. Additionally, Ancestry has a great collection of Probate Records. Many states also have online access to their death certificates. You might try looking at the state's Memory Project or Archives, or even their individual state vital records site. It might be difficult to find these additional site so I will give you another site which could help you in this search, This site is a compilation of links to national, state and regional databases which have death records. One little tidbit of information about death certificates: Have you ever noticed the numbers in the cause of death area of the certificate? Those numbers are the International Cause of Death (ICD) code. The ICD codes have been in use since the early 1900s and may provide additional information about the cause of death. If you want to find out what your specific code means, I suggest you take a look at Wolfbane's database of codes. Make sure you look at the specific range of dates that your record is in because the codes do change periodically.

Now that you have specific dates for the death and the location of death, the next death record I try to find are the obituaries. The obituaries are found in the local newspapers. Remember to search the newspapers from the location of the event, the location where the person lived at the time of death, and the location where they were born. You may want to search the larger regional newspapers for mentions of the death also. I like to check multiple newspapers since you could find additional information in each newspaper. So, where do you look for newspaper articles?

One great database is the Library of Congress' Chronicling America Historic Newspaper Collection. This site has a collection of newspapers from across the country between 1789 and 1922. Another site that I use often is Genealogy Bank's Obituary Collection. This is searchable to Genealogy Bank subscribers but is also available for free from the FamilySearch website. If you cant't find your local newspaper on these sites, I suggest looking at Wikipedia. This link to Wikipedia has a list of online newspaper archives from around the world. Some of the papers are free while other have subscription fees. There are also several sites that compile lists of obituaries, some are for specific regions such as Elmer Spear's Genealogy Corner (Ohio and Southeast Georgia/Florida) and the Rutherford B. Hayes Library (Ohio). If you want to find obituary records for your region, I suggest looking at GenealogyBuff Obituary Collection. This is a site which compiles links to websites that have obituary collections. For more recent obituaries I suggest looking at the Tributes and Legacy websites. Both of these sites collect obituaries from funeral homes around the country. Sysoon also has a collection of death records. Sysoon is a wiki which starts out from death records compiled by the Social Security Death Index and then allows users to add additional information to fill out the data. One last tip, if you visit Cyndi's List she has a set of obituary and death collections that are very useful.

I hope that these resources provide you hours of research fun and result in new discoveries for your family. Have a good weekend.