What to do if you can’t find a death certificate

I’ve been looking at U.S. death certificates recently, noting that the genealogical information in them could be mistaken, depending on the person reporting that data.

But what do you do if you can’t find a death certificate?
Here are my recommendations:

  1. Check the website of the state health department for information on whether deaths were previously registered by counties.
  2. Use find-a-grave. Carefully.
  3. Check the newspaper, especially outside cities.
  4. Look for probate records.

Before I get into this in any detail, though, let me ask you: do you really need your ancestor’s date of death? If you already have proof of their children and parents, you probably won’t gain anything. And if you’re looking for parents, you probably won’t find them on pre-1900 death registrations.

The U.S. has a federal system, and that means an inconsistent mish-mash of death registration, especially from 1900 to about 1915, when most states adopted a standard form recommended by the Census Bureau, and centralized reporting from county and municipal control. Before about 1905, though, finding death registrations is the exception, not the rule.

If you’re researching a death in the early 1900s, it’s worth visiting the website of your state’s health department. It will always list when the state began collecting records, and what to do if counties registered deaths prior to that. I’ve had mixed results here: most of the time, the counties will point me back to the state, but there are exceptions.

Take Illinois: the state’s department of health website points you to county registrars for deaths prior to 1916. And for Illinois, you might just be in luck: DeKalb County, for example, sells these records online for a few bucks.

What if county registrars don’t record earlier deaths? To use other sources effectively, you really need to be able to narrow things down to within a couple years and to a particular location. Find-a-grave is very good for this—you can get a year of death, possible even a date, and people were almost always buried close to where they died.

I won’t go into Find-a-grave in detail—I have a set of videos about how to use that source—but here’s the quick version. Only rely on what’s carved into a tombstone. Everything else on a memorial is submitted by a user, and you can’t know the quality of their research. Still, assume good intent and take other info as a starting point.

Another great source are newspapers death notices and obituaries. I’ve got a distinct video on how to track down newspaper resources, but here’s a quick summary. The United States used to be a nation of newspapers. Just about every town had one, and all of them earned revenue from death notices. The smaller the town, the smaller the newspaper, the more affordable the death notice, the greater chance for genealogical detail in the notice.

Same went for obituaries—big city papers might only publish obituaries for leading luminaries and the most sensational deaths, but the press in little town might cover more.

Your final best bet is to find probate documents. That’s a pretty complicated topic, though, so I’ll leave that to another video as well. Again, you’re going to need a county and a year, but don’t assume that probate will happen in the same place as death & burial. Trains made it possible to transport corpses, so a person could be buried in a different county or even state. Conversely, without trains, people were buried where they died, which might not have been where they lived.

Let’s take a real example that wraps all of this up: my wife’s 2nd great-grandfather, Willard Harding. His tombstone in Mount Vernon, Washington notes that he died on 20 July 1907 at the age of 39.

If you visit Washington Department of Health site, it states quite clearly that after 1 July 1907, the state collected death certificates. But they couldn’t find Willard’s. I followed the site’s direction to check with the county Auditor, but no luck there either. I followed a lead from a member of my wife’s family that he had died in Wentachee, and found an obituary index from the Wenatchee Genealogical society.

When I got my hands on the articles, I got the whole story: Willard had been nearly bedridden for two years, and had visited Soap Lake in Grant County, which was a big health spa at the time. He became seriously ill on the train home, and was pulled off in Wenatchee where he died. His body was then shipped home to Skagit County.

Why wasn’t there a death certificate? Maybe there was confusion over which county was supposed to record his death? Or maybe the Wenatchee doctor wasn’t even aware of the new law?

Willard knew he was dying, so he made out his will at the age of 38. That will was probated in Skagit County.

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