Primary Sources: US Death Certificates


Primary sources are the documents that genealogists strive to find because they are created contemporaneously with a given event. But that doesn’t always mean they’re correct. You have to understand how the document is created, by whom, and for what purpose, to assess the accuracy of its information.

Death records in the U.S. are spotty prior to the early 1900s. The Massachusetts Bay Colony started civil registration of deaths in 1632, but by 1851, only seven states were systematically recording deaths. In 1880 the country began to systematically collect causes of death for health purposes, but until the Census Bureau created a standard death registration form in the late 1890s that you started seeing a lot of death certificates with genealogical value beyond location, date and cause of death.

By 1910, death certificates in the U.S. are pretty consistent in terms of format and content, and only a few places weren’t collecting them everywhere.

It’s important to remember, however, that death certificates were initially created to track public health issues, not to help you identify your ancestors. Later, they became legal documents as well, used for probate, insurance and other reasons.
Despite being legal documents, you can’t trust everything on a death certificate. Remember to think of a document as a conversation, and in this case, it’s a three-way with a medical professional, an undertaker and a reporter—typically a family member—all contributing to different parts of the document.

Let me give you an example: When my father passed away in 2005, the gentlemen running Kimble Funeral Home took care of everything, including filling out the death certificate. They were responsible for parts of it, noting that my dad was cremated. They partnered with his doctor to note his date and cause of death. And about three hours after my dad died—when my mother and I were still in shock from watching him take his last breaths—they asked us where and when he was born, who his parents were, and whether he had any aliases. We didn’t have to present any documents to back that up either.

In short, the part of a death certificate which notes cause of death, place of burial, and place of death is hard fact. The portion with genealogical information such parents, date of birth, and place of birth is completely reliant on the family member who was present when the certificate was filled out.

Consider my father’s grandfather, Patrick Valentine O’Neill. His wife, Mary Haggerty O’Neill, reported his death, including a birth date of Valentine’s Day 1877. In fact, Patrick was born on 8 February 1877, and baptized on 13 February 1877, a day before St. Valentine’s day. His wife had the facts wrong.

Not a big deal, just a few days off. Maybe Patrick’s middle name played a part, in that he remembered his parents telling him about being named after St. Valentine because he was born around that date.

But consider Mary Haggerty O’Neill’s aunt, Catherine Tuohy née Haggerty. When she passed away on 12 Jan 1922, her son, Henry, reported that she was born on 7 Feb 1850 to George Haggerty and Catherine Merriman. Henry had everything correct except for his maternal grandmother’s surname: it was Gallagher, not Merriman.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese has a 7 February 1850 birth of George Haggerty and Catherine Gallagher’s daughter, Catherine; as well as the 7 November 1875 record of an Edward Tuohy marrying Catherine, the daughter of George Haggerty and Catherine Gallagher.
Henry was stressed: his mother had died of pneumonia at 1:50 a.m. He was probably exhausted, up all night, and he… well, he mixed up his maternal grandparents (George Haggerty and Catherine Gallagher) with his paternal grandparents (Edward Tuohy and Mary Meriman). Look again at Catherine’s death certificate—the name Edward was scribbled out, replaced with George Haggerty.
When you look at a U.S. death certificate, pay close attention to the family member who reported the death. Who were they? What was their state of mind that day?

If you have a close relative reporting the death, the parents and date/place of birth are probably correct. But if something on the cert doesn’t make sense, it could just be the result of a very bad day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *