When looking for a death record for an ancestors, some researchers look for only the obvious-a death certificate or an obituary. So, what happens if they don’t find any? Some people give up. Smart researchers look for alternatives. What about the person who found a death certificate or obituary? Some stop. They think they have adequate proof of the ancestors death. But, is it and if it is, does it tell us everything we want to know about that ancestor? No, no, and again, no.
So, what is a person to do? Look for more. Look for alternatives. Leave no stone unturned. Finding that death certificate or obituary is great but what if there’s a mistake in it?
Let me give you an example.
I had the death certificate, family biographies from county histories, an obituary, and a photo of the tombstone for my great, great grandmother, Sarah Helen Mason Neely. One day, when the cemetery office was open, I decided to ask if they had a written record of her death or burial. They did, so I got a copy.
As soon as I saw the printout they gave me of the record they had for her in their computer, I knew her birth date was wrong. I pointed it out to them but they were busy that day and would not go in the back room to find the original handwritten record and would not take my word for it that it was wrong. I even pointed out that she was buried close to the office if they would go out with me and look at the dates engraved in her stone. They wouldn't.
A day or so later, I went back to the cemetery. I took the other records I had on her with me and showed them, including the photo I had taken of her and her husband’s tombstones. Once they saw that all of the other records gave a different year of birth for her, they went back and pulled the original handwritten record and lo and behold, I was right.
It was probably just a typo in their computer but I had to prove it to them that the record in their computer was wrong. What if I didn't live in the county that she was buried in and was unable to visit the cemetery in person and called or wrote and requested a record of her death and burial? What if it as the only record I had for her? I would have recorded her date of birth as 29 October 1841 when her real date of birth was 29 October 1946. The information in my family history would be wrong. Don’t our ancestors deserve better than to have the information on them incorrect?
My point here is don’t give up if you find no death certificate or obituary. Don’t stop if you do. Think outside the box. What other records are there that pertain to an ancestor’s death? What other information might I learn by obtaining all of the records I can find that relate to their deaths?
If learning about what can be found in death certificates and obituaries and the many alternative records pertaining to your ancestors’ deaths interests you, then follow my column, Beyond the Obituaries at the In-Depth Genealogist.
1. Ohio, death certificate no. 94 (1929), Sarah Helen Neely; Allen County Health Department, Lima. .
2. Photograph; privately held by Deborah A. Mayes, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Delphos, Ohio; Woodlawn Cemetery, Lima, Ohio. Sarah Helen Mason Neely, grave marker. Photo taken by Deborah A. Mayes
3. Woodlawn Cemetery (Lima, Ohio), computer printout, Sarah Helen Neely.