Many genealogical researchers are under the impression that death certificates are practically the only way to determine the date of death of an ancestor. On the contrary, death certificates are not the only methods of determining death information, but in fact, they are a rather recent development in the world of record-keeping. For example, some of the Western states of the United States did not keep consistent death records until the 1900s. For a quick way to determine the earliest dates of governmental maintained death records is to view the FamilySearch.org Research Wiki on the subject of vital records for each of the states and counties in the United States.
If we examine the sequence of events that usually occur subsequent to the death of an individual, we can find that there are many records that will give information concerning the death of an ancestor other than a death certificate. Of course, we need to realize that not all deaths were recorded and it is not uncommon that individuals died under circumstances that prevented their death from being recorded. For example, if an individual died under circumstances where the body was never found, determining an accurate date of death is difficult if not impossible.
Generally, on the death of a person arrangements had to be made for the disposition of the body and its transportation to the burial location. In most Western European countries and including the United States these services are usually performed by a third-party, often a professional. When available, a death certificate serves as a memorandum of the date and circumstances of the person’s death. From that point, the body was removed by a mortuary or funeral parlor, depending on the historical context and culture at the time. There were documents created at the time of the involvement of the mortuary funeral parlor. There are often documents concerning the arrangements made to purchase a burial plot. If there is any need to transport the body, particularly if the body is being transported across state lines, then there are additional documents that are created concerning the transport of the deceased’s body.
In many cases, there is a funeral or other memorial service and the program was either recorded by the mortuary or funeral home and a book or other record is printed and used as a remembrance of the deceased. At the same time, in the United States, since about the early 1960s notice was sent to the Social Security Administration about the death of the individual. In conjunction with the funeral, various documents could have been executed by the heirs for services for flowers or other memorials.
Very often, notices of the death appeared in the local papers. In many cases, there was an obituary written by a family member. It is not unusual for these notices to be repeated in newspaper far distant from the place where the ancestor died.
In order to be buried, many states require to form to be filed with the state called a Permit for Burial. In some cases, these documents contain as much information as the death certificate would have under these circumstances. In addition, some states required a permit to open the grave in addition to the Permit for Burial. Sometimes, there is a separate receipt for the purchase of the gravesite, but it is possible that this particular item is included in the money paid to the mortuary.
After the burial has occurred, in many cases, there are various documents reflecting the acquisition of a gravemarker. If the deceased was a veteran, there may be an application for a veteran’s marker.
Finding these documents can be a challenge. Some of the documents will have been maintained by the local mortuary or funeral parlor. Often, records from earlier mortuaries and funeral parlors are passed on to subsequent businesses in the area. Some of these records go back over 100 years or more. The transportation, burial and grave acquisition records may have been kept by the mortuary or funeral parlor, or may be located at the cemetery itself or in the possession of the entity responsible for the cemetery. For example, church cemeteries were and are maintained by the church itself. Records about burials in the church cemetery are most likely available through the church.
In some cases, the documents concerning the burial process have been sent to an archive or library. When investigating these records, it is very important to follow the chain of records created at the time of the death to find those that pertain to the date of death of the ancestor.
Once the person is buried the records of the burial may stay at the local cemetery, in a Cemetery Sexton’s office or may have been transferred to some other repositories such as a library, historical society, state archive or other such record repository. It is important to determine exactly what the particular documents were called in the jurisdiction where the ancestor died. But it is equally as important to realize that there were a number of records created at the time of the death. Keep asking and keep looking.