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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - April/May 2005
Death Certificates and Genealogical Research

Death certificates can be gold mines of genealogical information or they can be documents full of wrong information. Sometimes they are both. The person giving the information about the deceased parent or person may or may not have known much about his or her background. This is evidenced by the fact that personal information such as birthdates, birthplaces, and the spellings of names often contain errors. These mistakes are often unintentional but sometimes errors have proven to be deliberate in order to hide family or personal secrets. 
Beginners to genealogy often question the need to locate and request certificates for all of their ancestors. The main complaint stems from the cost and time involved in locating and requesting such information. If your goal is locating all the information on your deceased ancestor, you must take the time and effort to request as many certificates as you can obtain.  Death certificates can be expensive to obtain and can often be misleading, but they often furnish many more facts and clues than any other document created for and about your ancestor. 
One of the major advantages of death certificates is the amount of genealogical family and personal information they may contain. Usually, the form to be filled out upon the person's death has spaces for a couple dozen facts about the deceased. If the informant knows the correct answers, then correct information appears on the death certificate. It is when the informant does not know the information that incorrect details appear. 
Keep in mind that each state often uses a different format for death certificates. These forms vary greatly in the amount of information about the deceased they require or even request. No two states seem to use the same form. 
Information requirements on death certificates have evolved over time. Death certificates can be obtained from a variety of sources, usually from the county courthouse or state office of vital records. In general terms, if a death occurred prior to 1900, the odds favor contacting the county courthouse first. By the 1920's, most counties nationwide were sending copies of all death certificates issued in their jurisdiction to the state office of vital records. The exact date when the legal requirements mandated this procedure will vary from state to state. 
To obtain a death certificate from a state or county office, contact information may be obtained by consulting using either of the following sources: "Handybook for Genealogists" or the "Ancestry Red Book". These sources will provide the name of the county seat, and contact information for the courthouse or county health department that would handle death certificates. Another important companion source is "Where To Write For Vital Records". This source gives the addresses for state offices including fees for searches and copies. Many states now provide the application form online. Some require the patron to download the from and mail it to a designated address. Others will allow you to send the completed form electronically provided you are willing to provide credit card and drivers license information electronically. 
To check for death certificates available online, go to This is a nation-wide umbrella site with links to each state and county. If a particular state or county permits online access and research, this information will be posted on the website. If there are any other guidelines necessary for access, they will also be posted as well. 
Another avenue for acquiring a certificate of death is the LDS Family Search website This site provides access to the microfilmed records of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Once on the site, go to the Family History Library catalog icon. Type in the "state", then "county", and then scroll to the "Vital Records" listing. This catalog entry will tell you if such-and-such county's death certificates have been microfilmed. If the answer is yes, note the specific microfilm number and visit you nearest Family History Library branch. They can order the microfilm from Salt Lake City and contact you when the film reaches the branch. You can search the microfilm and make a copy of the death certificate. 
Bryan L. Mulcahy 
Reference Librarian 
Fort Myers-Lee County Library 
2050 Central Avenue 
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917 
Tel: (239)- 479-4651 
Fax: (239)- 479-4634 

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