A Beginner’s Guide to Evaluating a Death Record

Our ancestors have died, and if we’re lucky they have left records of their death. Those records can provide clues for our genealogy questions.

One principle in genealogy is that a record is more reliable when it is an original document created at the time of the event by individuals who witnessed said event.

Errors can still creep into these records but the chances greatly reduced. When you evaluate a death record, you have a variety of information that has to be evaluated separately.

A death record may contain:

  • death date and place
  • burial date and place
  • birth date and place
  • parental names
  • marital status and spousal name

Which information in a death record is created at the time of the death by people who witnessed said death?  If you said death and burial information you would be correct.

The most reliable details in a death record are these:

  • death date and place
  • burial date and place
  • cause of death
  • length of illness preceding death

The reason the reliability is high for this information is:

  • This record was created at the time of an ancestor’s death
  • The undertaker and doctor who signed off on the death and cause of death are acting in their official capacity.
  • They generally have no reason to fudge a fact.

Errors may still show up in death records for this information, but they’re less likely.

All other information is provided by someone long after a life event occurred (in most situations). In order to judge the quality of the additional information, asked the following questions:

  • Who is the informant on the record?
  • Would they have witnessed the event or heard about it?
  • Is the information consistent with other supporting documents?

If the informant is a spouse or child, then they likely didn’t witness the birth of the deceased. If the informant is a spouse and did live long enough to meet their in-laws, they might be aware of the likely parents of the deceased. If the informant is a parent, they likely witnessed the birth of their child.

Using this BRIEF overview, you can review this video that demonstrates how I applied these principles to evaluate the death record for Winfield Underwood, from the Research Over My Shoulder series.

How to Evaluate a Death Record - Research Over My Shoulder Episode 8
Watch this video on YouTube.
This post is part of the Research Over My Shoulder video series. 
To watch this video in full, click on THIS LINK

The highlights from the video are these:

  • The informant is Winfield’s son Logan Underwood.
  • The death record states his birth month is May, but a birth record says it was in June. Which should be believed?
  • Winfield’s father is identified as Hiram.
  • Winfield’s mother is identified as Eliza Gaddie.

With this one record alone, can we prove the parentage and birth date of Winfield?

No. We can not. Logan was not alive at the time of his father’s birth and would not have first-hand knowledge of Winfield’s birth date and parents. He did long enough to meet both of his grandparents, so it’s entirely possible that the Eliza name was a simple mistake.

One other thing to note is that death record mistakes can perpetuate. The person who generally is the informant on the death record is likely the one who submits the obituary information and orders the gravestone (or at least assists with the details). As such, if the death certificate makes a mistake on the parents and birth date and place for the ancestor, it can ripple into print and stone.

Be warned. When you’re trying to determine parents, your best evidence is a birth record that specifically identifies them. When the birth records are unavailable or do not exist, we can find them alternate sources, a death record is one of them. However, we will have to make sure we’re evaluating all of the available sources to determine the facts, as much as we are able.

Far too often, researchers accept any fact on any record without evaluating will evidence. To be better researchers, we have to understand what documents are telling us and which ones to believe.

Follow these guidelines to properly evaluate a death record. Not everything is accurate. #genealogy #methodology #ancestors

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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