In our cold, modern, somewhat unsentimental western culture, death has become a taboo subject. While we are totally powerless to avoid it, we still feel rather uneasy when we discuss this particular subject with friends and relatives, as if by avoiding the topic we will stay clear of the inevitable end, and because we think it’s a depressing and morbid subject for a conversation. Even children are kept in the dark longer than what is probably good for them by telling them that Granny has gone away on holiday, rather than telling them that she actually suffered a stroke and went to meet Grandpa in Heaven… Oh very well, sugar-coating the information a touch is OK too, I suppose.
But what I want to talk to you about today is death certificates. I have noticed that, as a genealogist, I have tended to neglect the tremendous amount of information that a death certificate can actually give me when doing family research. This may have been because I was over anxious to climb up my family tree at all possible speed, that what I wanted was not to find how long my ancestors lived and what their lives were like, but rather what my link to the Tudors and the Plantagenets was. As I seem to have failed miserably in my quest to find my direct link to Royalty, I’m back to square one.
Death certificates are, in fact, a hugely helpful source of information. Any researcher will come across a death certificate at some point or another in their research, but knowing how to use it goes beyond understanding the words it contains. If you need to track down a death certificate in the UK the best way to start is by using the Free BMD database available online. Remember to consider alternate spellings and initials if at some point you draw blanks. If you are unable to find a direct reference, a kind-worded letter to the local registry office may be very helpful too.
The most obvious fact you will learn out from a death certificate -be it a civil registration inscription or a document issued by a religious authority- is the date of death. Knowing when your ancestor died will help you to close a chapter in your family history while revealing a huge number of details. Does the date mean anything to you? Compare the information with the data you have of your ancestor’s birth/baptism; did he die young, or was he an old man? Some death certificates mention the person’s age at the time of death, but quite often you may find incongruities on this score, as very often ages were rounded to the next birthday, or to an estimate number if, for example, the informant -who may well have been a son-in-law or a neighbour- did not know the exact facts in detail.
The fact that the age stipulated on the death certificate does not tally in with the information you believe to be true does not necessarily mean that you are on the wrong track. Remember that in the olden days birthdays were not celebrated in some countries, and thus a lot of people may not have known when they had been born or what their exact age was. My own ancestor Susannah Tippins was 101 years old when she died in 1884, which would mean she was born in 1783; frustratingly her baptism certificate is dated 1789, which leaves me to wonder whether she wasn’t really 101 when she died, or whether she was about six years old when she was baptised in 1789.
The next obvious fact that you’ll learn from the death certificate is the cause of death, a piece of information which for privacy reasons is now being omitted from the death records by the authorities in countries like Spain – a grave mistake in my opinion. The cause of death will of course tell you if the person in question died of natural causes, in an accident or otherwise. If a female ancestor died during childbirth, you may wish to check whether the baby managed to survive and made it to the birth/baptism registration books. If your ancestor died of a well-known illness, did he/she die during an epidemic? What is certain is that, by researching the illness a bit, you will get a clearer picture of the circumstances in which your ancestor died: did your ancestor suffer for a long time before passing away? Was it sudden? Did a doctor certify the death? Did more relatives in your family die of the same disease? Is the disease still present in your family tree? Bear in mind you will often come across archaic medical terms. For instance, my great-grandmother’s death certificate states that she died of “cachexia”, which today is considered a symptom of cancer, rather than as an illness in itself. Words like consumption, apoplectic attack or dropsy are now more commonly known as tuberculosis (or TB), cerebral haemorrhage (or stroke) and oedema. If you need to consult medical terms you are not familiarised with check Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms.
An interesting point to note on the death certificate is where the death took place. One hundred years ago hospitals were much rarer than they are today, not to mention the availability of professional medical care to the general population. Many could not afford a doctor’s fees and very often even struggled to pay for the burial, which would account for the fact that so many of our ancestors ended in communal burial sites known as pauper’s graves. Nevertheless, the vast majority of our ancestors died at home. Do not be surprised, however, if again you come across an incongruity on this score. My great-grandfather died of a massive heart-attack while going up the stairs of a government building (the Inland Revenue, would you believe it). You can imagine my surprise when I saw that his death certificate said that he died at home. Then again, could I really expect to see something like “he died climbing up the stairs of the Inland Revenue”.
The informant might also be an interesting clue to your family puzzle. Sometimes recently bereaved spouses and children could not face having to go all the way to the local registry office to record a death, so it was often up to a neighbour or a son-in-law to record a death. If you have encountered the name before you may well wish to take note of it, as the same person might turn up again in your family history as the godfather to one of your relatives, a witness to a marriage or even that distant cousin you’ve always wondered about. If you want to make sure who the informant was use the available tools to find out, by using the closest census record (was the informant a neighbour living next door?) or the marriage certificates (was the informant married to your ancestor’s sister/daughter/cousin?).
Noting when the death was recorded in the registry can sometimes prove of interest as well. There is usually a legal time-span that people have to record official events -particularly births- before the authorities. However, sometimes did not work out quite as we may expect. On one particular birth certificate I have in my possession I noticed that the mother was unable to make the two-mile journey to the local registry office to register the birth of her son because of the violent storms which affected the area at the time. This may not be a vital piece of information, but it will certainly add a couple of lines when I begin writing my family history.
If you’re looking for a date of death but you don’t know where to start, I would suggest you began around the time of the birth of your ancestor’s youngest child. Consider starting nine month’s prior to the birth of the person’s baby. If your ancestor was born posthumously, you can pin point the father’s death almost to the month without even paying for a death certificate. If your female ancestor died a widow, you can logically surmise that her husband passed away beforehand, and therefore you will be able to narrow the research by a few years. Our ancestors seldom lived into their nineties, but it doesn’t mean that everyone died in their thirties, as it is widely believed. In fact some of our ancestors did lead very long lives; remember that the lower life expectancy is calculated taking into account infant mortality as well, which of course makes the average age at death seem lower than it is today.
Once you have your ancestor’s death certificate you might want to start applying the information to the history you have already. Did your ancestor leave a will? To find out, use the available tools you have at hand, either online or by visiting the local archives (notary registries, local libraries, etc.). Wills contain a tremendous amount of information about your ancestors’ personal life, not only because they tell us how much money they left behind (it’s always nice to fantasize, isn’t it?) but how many children they had at the end and what they left to each one. You may even spot a family feud you had no knowledge of, and realise that “my son whoever” was disinherited for some reason or another.
A date of death will also give you a clue as to where your ancestor was likely to be buried. Why not find out whether there is still a headstone marking the grave at the local churchyard? You may even find a memorial plaque, or your ancestor’s name engraved on a stained-glass window! Check whether there are any references in the parish records as to when the burial or the funeral took place. Remember that in countries like Spain burials usually took place within 48 hours of death, a tradition which is still carried on today, while in Britain they took place days or even weeks after the person had passed away. Do the records state how much the funeral cost, and who was present? Don’t disregard this type of record, for you may well find surprises too. You may find that a funeral took place in your ancestor’s home town, but in fact your ancestor died abroad or drowned in a shipwreck and consequently no burial ever took place in the area.
I think it is quite obvious that death certificates are tremendously helpful. In fact, I think I might well order a couple today…
Welsh actor, comedian and TV presenter Griff Rhys Jones goes through four death certificates while searching for the record of his ancestor Daniel Price: