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Monday, July 18, 2016

Part 1: How Do You Research Using Death Certificates?

"South Carolina, Deaths, 1915-1943," index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 27 July 2012), Jane Mc Coy, 1919.
Robin Foster
Much of the information gleaned from a death certificate can be used more effectively to connect to other resources that document your ancestor. This article is the first in a series to help beginning researchers extract information from the death certificate to learn more about an ancestor.

It is not easy to determine the surname of a female who married if you only knew the maiden name. Jane Smith of Greenwood County, South Carolina was married to Andrew Johnson who passed away before 1915. A search for the death certificate of Jane Johnson proved unsuccessful because sometime before her death in 1919 she remarried. Not knowing her new surname, her death certificate was very difficult to locate. It was finally discovered by only using her parent’s names in the search fields on See Jane Mc Coy’s death certificate.

The death certificate lists her new married name, Mc Coy, and knowing that surname will help to identify more information using the following records

  • Census (search for her second spouse)
  • Newspapers
  • City directories
  • Wills/probate
  • Land records

Place of death
If you found your ancestor’s death in an area that you have not researched, it would be wise to become familiar with other resources in that locality. You may discover other family members or connections that may explain why your ancestor was living there. Sometimes they moved near family so that they could find help in advancing years, and they also moved seeking more advanced medical care in places that were less rural. George Anderson Tucker’s death certificate was difficult to locate because he left the area where he lived his entire life to be near his eldest daughter who helped to care for him, and that put him near better quality health care in Columbia. After his death, he was returned to Union County for burial.

Knowing the date and place of death may lead you to an obituary or funeral program where you can learn more about the parents, spouse, and siblings or other surviving family members. It may helpful to interview the family members listed in an obituary. Many county and parish libraries have indexed newspaper obituaries. Search these indexes to learn more about an ancestor and other family members. Often obituaries contain information about family living in different areas.

Marital status
The marital status (married, single, widowed, divorced) of an ancestor on the death certificate helps you to determine whether or not there was a surviving spouse. If your ancestor was widowed at the time of death, you at least know that the spouse’s death occurred prior to your ancestor’s death. If you knew that your ancestor was widowed at the time of death but the certificate shows married, then perhaps you have discovered another spouse. In the example used above, Jane McCoy’s marital status shows widowed. There was no prior knowledge of her being married a second time. She was widowed twice, and because the death certificate reveals her second husband’s surname, it will be easier to identify him and perhaps a record of their marriage as well.

Ancestors who were teachers, farmers, or clergy may be discovered among other record types from the same locality such as:

  • School records
  • Church records
  • Land or tax records
  • Historic newspapers

Birth place
Sometimes an ancestor migrated from the place of birth, and you may have trouble finding the family group on the census. When the county or parish of birth is given, you should search the census and vital records in that area for your ancestor. Be aware that this may be the same place where the parents were married, and church records or vital records could exist for them also. Jane Mc Coy was documented on every census between 1870 and 1910 in Abbeville or Greenwood Counties. It was only through the discovery of her death certificate that Greenville, the county of her birth and her parent’s birth, was verified.


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