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Family History Month

With Halloween just two days away, what better time to talk about death…death records, that is. They are the last of the vital records; the last remaining to be discussed here and the last our relatives leave behind. Though it may seem a bit morbid, there is actually a lot to be learned in discovering our ancestors death records.

As always, this article will focus on death records in the state of Indiana. Though many of the basics discussed will ring true across the country, the specifics will differ greatly. For information pertaining to death records in other states, contact that state’s Department of Health.

About Death Records in Indiana

Indiana law did not require deaths to be reported to the State Board of Health until 1900. Deaths that occurred between 1882 and 1900 were recorded with the county health departments, and most deaths before 1882 were not recorded by any governing body.

Accessing Death Records

The rules and methods for accessing death records are the same as those for birth records. Keep in mind that if you do not meet the relationship restrictions, or you are seeking records for your great-grandparents or earlier, there is an exception that allows you to access the records, as long as the record is at least 75 years old. In order to access these records you must present your own primary documentation  plus proof that the person you’re researching has passed away. For more information, you can contact the health department in the county where the death occurred. (See a list of contact information.)

What You’ll Find

A person’s death record can provide you with a great deal of helpful information, including the individual’s

  • date and place of birth
  • date and place of death
  • cause of death
  • marital status
  • occupation
  • date and place of burial

In addition, it often gives the full names and birth places of both parents. This is particularly important for those individuals for whom no birth record is available, as the death record may be the only official record that contains the details of their birth.

Using a Death Index

As with birth and marriage indices, indices of death records can serve either as a replacement for an official record  when an official record cannot be located or as a tool to help narrow your search for an official record. There are several death indices worth mentioning.

The index of births created by the Works Projects Administration that was discussed in an earlier post also included deaths. It can be accessed in print at the Indiana State Library or in part via Ancestry.com (available for free at several area libraries).

There is also an index of Pre-1882 death records compiled by Dawne Slater-Putt, CG, from multiple secondary sources. It is available online through the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mentioning the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI is generated from the Death Master File of the United States Social Security Administration. Most of the deaths recorded in the SSDI occurred after 1962, when the Death Master File was first maintained via computer. Despite some controversy regarding the availability of sensitive information and concerns about identity theft, the SSDI remains an invaluable resource for genealogists and family historians. It can be accessed for free via several online sources, including FamilySearch.org.

A Few Tips
  • Obviously, it helps to know the specific information regarding the place and date of your ancestor’s death before attempting to obtain a certified death record. If you do not have this information, don’t give up!  There are plenty of other ways to find it, including obituaries, cemeteries, and church records, all of which we’ll discuss in future posts.
  • If you are using an index, keep in mind that your are dealing with a secondary source and that the information it contains may have errors. Even the SSDI is known to contain errors, so make sure to verify your findings with additional sources whenever possible.

One response to “Kickstart Your Family Tree: Records of Death”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Agreed; those are valuable records and should be retained by the survivors…

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