Death Records mark the end of our ancestors' time on the earth, but can serve as the starting point for your research. In fact, it?s often the best approach to researching your family history, to start backwards.
Death records will obviously be the most recent record you can find on your ancestor, so chances are highest that of all the vital records, a death certificate exists.
When you start your search, the first step is to determine what records may exist, and where. In the United States, there's no central repository for vital records, and prior to the 20th century, records were only kept at the town and county levels, if at all. Check the information for the state you think your ancestor spent his or her final days to see what records exist for which timeframe. See the state resources on this web site for detailed information on each state.
In addition to death certificates, there are other sources of death information that you may find useful:
Look for cemetery records and the actual graves of your ancestors. Be careful though. Just because the information is "written in stone" does not mean that it is accurate. Information is not verified and provided by grieving family members and is frequently incorrect.
Bible records and other family papers that have been save by family members may hold information about.
Newspaper obituaries are also a great place to look. More and more, newspapers are being archived and are available for searching on the Internet.
If your ancestor served in the military, you may find pension records and other military service records.
Look in court records, like wills and other administrative documents that may contain details on where your ancestor spent his or her final days.
Finally, census records and mortality schedules may be a good source of information.
Guidelines for Requesting Death Records
Following the following guidelines with each request will give you the best possible outcome.
Keep your letters short. Don't include lots of requests and do not include details of your family tree. Remember, there's a regular person on the other end of this request, probably working in a one or two person town clerk's office. They're busy, and the last thing they want to open a letter that's overwhelming. And be patient with your request.
Provide complete information on an individual and event for which you need documents. Include all names that may have been used, include nicknames, alternate spellings, etc. List dates and type of events as completely and accurately as possible. If you don't know the exact date, specify the span of several years.
Unless you already know the exact cost of a document, do not send a specific amount of money in cash or check. You may want to send a signed, blank check. If you do this, write under the space for the dollar amount something like Not to exceed $20.00, or whatever amount is appropriate. If you're not comfortable doing that, give them a call. If they don't accept telephone calls, you can request a quote of cost in the first letter and then when you receive that, you can send a check for the exact amount.
Always provide a self addressed stamped envelope.
When you write for a death certificate include the following information:
- Date of request
- Full name of person (last name in caps)
- Date of birth (necessary in some states)
- Date of death
- Place of birth
- Relationship to party
- The reason the record is needed
- Requestor's name and address
- Requestor's driver's license number & state (some counties require it)
- Requestor's signature
Start your search at the state level to discover what death information is available and with which government office, city, county, or state. Choose from the states below to begin.