Death records and information related to your ancestor's death are vital for your genealogy research. Death records and dates give you that critical information for timelines in your family tree and typically provide even more details about your ancestors including family relationships, birth dates, and sometimes even occupations. Death records are a great place to start when researching a particular ancestor in your family tree because death records are the most recent records for that particular individual.
In genealogy it's often best to work backwards starting with the most recent events moving to the more distant. If you've hit a brick wall with one of your ancestors, here are nine places to find information about your ancestor's death to assist with your research.
Please note that this list is in no way exhaustive, there are many different techniques, places to look, and strategies to find your ancestor's death information. What have you done to locate the death information of your ancestor?
1. Social Security Death Index
For your ancestors who died more recently, the Social Security Death Index is a great resource to get started in locating information surrounding your ancestor's death. The Social Security Death Index has entries from every state and includes deaths from 1930 up until the present.
A few tips to keep in mind when using the Social Security Death Index:
- Errors and omissions do occur, and so be diligent with confirming findings with multiple sources.
- If you can't locate your ancestor in these records there's a chance that the name is misspelled or a variant name was recorded, such as a nickname or the person's middle name. Try searching name variants to ensure that you're not missing your ancestor. Omissions also occur so if you can't find your ancestor after searching his/her name and variants, it may be time to move to a different document to track down the same information.
- Keep in mind that the location recorded on the Social Security Death Index is where the information was recorded/benefits received, not necessarily the location of the death.
2. Cemetery Records
Not only are cemetery records extremely useful, gravestones often provide additional details that you may have not discovered in other records. Some families share gravestones, so you can learn information about multiple people in your family history with just a photograph or visit to their grave. Be careful though, sometimes what's inscribed on a gravestone isn't what it seems.
In my family, there's a central gravestone that lists my great grandfather and his wife, but after doing diligent genealogical research, I learned that the woman listed on the gravestone was actually his second wife, so don't let confirmation bias affect your research, so be careful and use additional records to verify any discoveries.
Gravestone found in our Billion Graves Index
Gravestones can also reveal information about your ancestor's occupation or involvement in the military, societies or churches, which can help you uncover more resources and tools to overcome those brick walls.
Here are some of the items you could learn about your ancestors from their gravestone inscription:
- Family members and relationships
- Date of birth
- Date of death
- Affiliation with military
- Affiliation with societies
- Church denominations
3. Probate Records and Wills
Probate records are from the court proceedings and document the determination and distribution of the estate and belongings of the deceased individual to his/her dependents. These records can be very useful in family history research because they can be very detailed and provide a lot more information about your family and their relationships over a gravestone or other death record. Probate records and wills will often reveal other family members and the relationship between members. As with all genealogical research, due diligence is important as some of the relationships may be missing or altered, or items may be recorded in misleading ways. For example, if a child has died or wasn't included in the probate records, for any reason, they might not be included in the record, but that doesn't mean that they didn't exist. Another item to be careful of is if the person who died remarried then it doesn't mean that the wife or husband of the deceased person is the children's parent.
4. Census Records
If you have no idea when your ancestor died or have any documents highlighting your ancestor's death, then the US census records could be a great place to start. If you notice your ancestor isn't in a census and none following, it is a possibility they died in that time frame. Check the following census records just to verify that the person wasn't omitted by mistake or mis-recorded and also verify that your ancestor wasn't traveling during the time of the census. If your ancestor suddenly disappears from the census then you at least have a decade with which to continue your search, which can give you more details and search options. Another great way to find out when your ancestor died using the census, look for his/her spouse and check the marital status on the census records in both the transcription and the image. The census typically includes marital status and so if your ancestor's spouse passed away, their status will most likely be recorded as "widowed." If the transcription of the census doesn't specify if your ancestor is a widow or not, then be sure to check the image for a "w" or "wd" in the image, which also stands for widow. If you can't find your ancestor's spouse, also check their children's census records because sometimes the parents would move back in with their children following a spouse's death.
5. Church Records and Family Bibles
Church records can be an invaluable resource for your family history research. If you're struggling to find ancestors that lived before state and federal registration was required, then church records are a great place for you to dive in. Many churches kept robust records of their members including vital records, especially if your ancestor died and had his/her funeral and burial at that church. Family bibles are a great find because families were very diligent about recording their own personal data and history within them, so it's worth asking your relatives if they have any of their old bibles because they can be genealogical goldmines.
From our American Bible Society Collection
6. Land Records
If you don't have probate records or don't know when your ancestor passed away, land records could be a helpful aid in your search. Land records won't likely reveal birth and death dates or any of those key identifiers for your family history research, but they might give you clues to other family members or give an indication of the timing of your ancestor's death. If the land records were transferred to someone else, you can use that transfer as a clue to the nature of the transfer to determine if death is a possibility. The land records can help you pinpoint if the land simply sold, or if your ancestor passed away.
Newspapers are an amazing resource for genealogists because newspaper articles tell stories about what your ancestors were really like. If you think your ancestor wasn't "famous" enough to make it into the papers, you'd be surprised, especially with local publications. Sometimes newspapers can reveal the dates of death, the burial information, and even the cause of death. Obituaries have been around since the 1800's, but became standard practice by the end of the 19th century, which means that if your ancestors most likely had an obituary written about them.
Search Tip: Search the local newspaper and surrounding area newspapers 3-4 days before your estimated death date and up to 2 weeks following your ancestor's death to ensure that you have the correct death dates, or if they're mistaken, you don't miss the obituary entry.
Another item that can help you discover your ancestor's death in the newspapers is by looking for estate sales and death notices. Estate sales will take a bit more digging and a bit more diligence to verify, but if you're facing one of those brick walls, this might be just the key to break through it.
8. Military Records
If you have ancestors in the military and are looking for information about their death, then military records can be a great resource. Pension records will often reveal information about your ancestor's death, including death certificates, the name of your ancestor's widow or heirs.
9. City Directories
City directories are a great place to look to find the year your ancestor may have died. City directors typically list the citizens in the town, or city, along with their occupations and addresses. City directories also might include a list of citizens who died in the previous year. Sometimes the directories even list the cause of death, so they are definitely worth looking into, even if you already know the date of the deaths, they may reveal even more.
Found using PERSI
Finding accurate death information on your ancestor can be a challenge, and this list is definitely non-exhaustive, but should give you a place to start.
Where have you found information about your ancestor's death?