Why don’t Spanish death certificates include a cause of death?

If you have ever had to order a death certificate from a Spanish registry office, you may have noticed that the cause of death is crossed out, or simply does not exist. To many of us, the absence of a cause of death on a death certificate makes no sense whatsoever. You may or may not agree with doing away with what genealogists consider a vital part of their genealogy research, but today we will try to figure out why Spanish death certificates no longer include this crucial piece of information.

The modern Spanish Civil Registry system was created in 1870 during the reign of King Amadeo I, who imported the idea of a non-ecclesiastical registration of deaths from his native Italy; the law came into effect on 1 January 1871, and began by only recording births, marriages and deaths (not including stillbirths or children who died within the first 24h after birth). Nowadays, the Civil Registry covers a wider range of events, as it also records stillbirths, tutelages and legal representations.

This death certificate, from 1935, shows the cause of death stricken out and the Order reference beside it. The cause of death is still partially legible.

At first, like in most other civil registration forms like the English, French or Italian systems, Spanish death certificates did include a cause of death. This was mentioned either in a handwritten form or in the practical an easy-to-fill-out printed forms which became commonplace at the end of 1800’s.

This death certificate, dated from 1936 but issued in the 21st century, has not had the cause of death crossed out.

Everything changed in the 20th century, however, when the Ministry of Justice considered that the cause of death was “alien to the registration institution” – in other words, it was outside the scope of the Civil Registry’s purpose, as a cause of death does not contribute to the Registry’s goal of certifying someone’s death, which should otherwise continue to include a person’s identity (name, surname, parentage, date of birth, etc.).

For this very reason, the Order of the Spanish Ministry of Justice of 6th June 1994 decreed that, from then on, no death certificates would include a cause of death (which is included, however, in medical reports issued upon a person’s death but which are not kept at the Civil Registry office).

This death certificate, from 1996, does not include a cause of death but still includes the space where it would have been stated.

By virtue of this very Order, modern-day certificates simply do not include a cause of death. Deaths which were registered prior to 1994 would naturally include a cause of death, but Civil Registry officers are now expected to cross out the cause of death. Luckily, not everyone follows this rule, and we may still be lucky enough to find a cause of death stated in a pre-1994 certificate.  Sadly, this is not always the case, but depending on the civil servant’s efficiency, we may still be able to make out the writing underneath the ink, as shown on the first image above.

This blank death certificate, issued in 2004, no longer includes a space for the cause of death.

So, how can you find out what your Spanish ancestors died of if the cause is not mentioned on their death certificate? Well, it won’t always be easy, but I can think of several ways and methods that you can look for clues (and ensure that future generations can easily track the cause of death of their forefathers, whether it’s for medical reasons or out of general interest):

  • Burial records: many burial records in Spain, particularly during the 19th and early 20th century, feature the cause of death.
  • Family history and previous genealogical research: check stored information passed on orally or in writing by members of your family who knew your ancestors.
  • Medical or clinical records: although difficult to access (they would probably be stored in local hospitals or clinics), these may be of invaluable help. It is likely that only direct descendants will have access to such records.
  • Birth records: sometimes a marginal annotation on the birth record mentioning the person in question passed away may include the actual cause of death.
  • Newspaper clippings: there was a time when newspapers would publish daily announcements of deaths recorded in the local registry office, and mentioned the person’s name, age and cause of death.
  • Obituaries: very often a cause of death is given on obituaries. Phrases like “after a long illness” may imply a wasting disease like cancer or tuberculosis. If the person was killed in a war, a newspaper obituary would most likely make a reference to the circumstances.

If you want to apply for a death certificate in Spain, you can do so by ordering a copy via the Ministry of Justice website. Certificates are free, but the date and place of death (town or city) need to be included in the request. For more information I advise you read my article on how to order a Spanish death certificate.

This modern-day obituary remembers the deaths of two brothers who were murdered shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

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