10 April 2023

Death Certificates

Death certificates are an important source of information. They tell us when, where, and how a person died. In theory, death certificates may also tell the person's birth date and who their parents were. Some include additional information, such as occupation and spouse's name.

It is important to remember that this information was probably not provided by the deceased person. The person providing the information, known as the informant, is often named on the certificate. Typically, the informant is someone who knew the deceased well: a spouse or child. Sometimes a friend or neighbor does the job. If the deceased is extremely old or far from home, there may not be a good informant available, and the person completing the certificate has to rely on medical records (if they exist) or guesses. Many times, spaces on death certificates are filled with "unknown".

Even semmingly reliable informants are prone to mistakes. Children are sometimes mistaken about a parent's year of birth, and in many cases the child or spouse doesn't know the names of the deceased's parents. Worse yet, they may think they know something they don't really know. I have seen certificates where the "mother's maiden name" was actually her married name from a previous husband. Often, stepparents are listed instead of birth parents.

My uncle's name was Ted Burrell, and his father's name was Paul Burrell. His parents divorced when he was very small, and he never knew his father. His mother subsequently remarried. Ted died at age 45. His mother was the informant for his death crtificate. When asked his father's name, she said, "George". George Smith was her husband, Ted's stepfather. However, the name George on the death certificate led some researchers to believe Ted's father was George Burrell (a person who didn't exist).

When looking at a death certificate, it's helpful to know who the informant was. Unfortunately, even a seemingly reliable informant, like Ted's mother, can make innocent mistakes. I try to compare the information on the certificate to other information I already have, such as military records, census information, or a birth certificate.