Image Restoration Center Blog Logo

How To Find & Understand Death Records

Death records are essential documents that can provide valuable information about a person’s life and family history. They typically include crucial details such as the date and cause of death, place of burial, and other vital information. 

But while death records are maintained by various government agencies, locating and understanding them can be a daunting task, especially for those who are new to genealogy research. This article will discuss finding and understanding death records, including where to look, what to expect, and how to interpret the information.

What Is A Death Record?

A death record is an official document containing information about a person’s death. Typically, a death record will include the following:

  • Full name
  • Age and birthdate
  • Gender
  • Nationality/ethnicity
  • Date of death
  • Place of death
  • Cause of death

Types Of Death Records

There are a few common types of death records:

  • Death certificate: This document is provided by a government agency and provides standard, identifying information about a deceased person. You can access death certificates in vital statistics offices. 
  • Death register: These chronological lists enumerate deaths within a specific geographic area, such as a town or country. They are not as detailed as death certificates.
  • Obituary: This published notice includes information about a deceased person’s life, family, and accomplishments. It may also outline details of a person’s funeral and is typically written by a family member or close friend. If you’re writing an obituary for the first time, our obituary templates can provide some ideas.
  • Death notice: Similar to obituaries, a death notice announces a person’s death but only includes basic information.
  • Mortuary record: Maintained by funeral homes, a mortuary record includes personal information about the deceased, their cause of death, special requests and arrangements made by the family, and details about visitations.
  • Cemetery record: This document kept by funeral homes includes information about a person’s burial, including the date and location of the funeral. It may also include details about any monuments or markers placed. 

Where To Find Death Records

Death records are accessible from the following sources.

Government Offices

You can request death records from government offices such as vital statistics offices, state archives, and county clerk offices. These establishments typically maintain records of deaths within their jurisdiction and may have documents as far back as a few centuries.

Death Record Websites

Many online resources make death records more accessible to the public. The most popular website that shows death records is Ancestry

To access death records on Ancestry, follow these steps:

  1. Visit the Ancestry website and log in to your account.
  2. Access the Ancestry death records search and select the “Death, Burial, Cemetery, and Obituaries” tab from the dropdown list of “All Categories.”
  3. Enter the name of the person you’re looking for, along with any available information, such as their birthday or the location of their death.
  4. Narrow down your search of death records using filters like location, date range, and other criteria.
  5. Once you find the Ancestry death certificates you’re looking for, click on the desired result to view more information on the person.

Other databases with death records include FamilySearch and FindMyPast.

Funeral Homes, Hospitals, & Other Establishments

If you can’t find death records from the above resources, you can contact a funeral home for information about the services they provided for a specific relative. Hospitals also record deaths within their facilities, while churches may have information regarding funerals or burials on their grounds.

How To Read Death Records

Reading and understanding death records is valuable for genealogical research and understanding your family history. Below are a few tips for reading and interpreting death records.

Know The Basics & Read Between The Lines

While death records are a primary source for details about a relative or ancestor’s death, information in these documents can also provide clues about their life. 

For instance, names can lead you to relatives from previous generations, while places can give important clues, such as burial locations where other relatives may have been laid to rest. The cause of death can provide valuable data regarding your family medical history and explain related deaths.

Understand Death Record Formats

Death records may be presented in varying formats depending on the date and location. For instance, older death records may be handwritten or pre-printed, while modern documents are typically typewritten and follow a specific format.

Consider The Source

Where you access someone’s death record can affect the type and quality of the information included. Government agencies typically keep the most detailed death records, while hospitals often provide valuable medical information regarding someone’s death.

Consider potential legal and cultural biases if you’re accessing death records from a religious institution. Depending on the establishment, it may censor or disregard information like a person’s gender identity or orientation.

Contextualize Information

Remember, death certificates are just one piece of the puzzle when learning about a relative’s life and family history. Use this information in conjunction with what you can gather from other documents like birth certificates, marriage licenses, and divorce certificates to learn more about your deceased family member.

You can access files like divorce records on Ancestry to learn more about your family tree. If you’re looking for an obituary for a specific person to learn more about how they might be connected to your relative, our guide can provide the tips you need.


The Bottom Line

Death records are an essential source of information for genealogical research and understanding your family history. Whether you’re looking for information about a specific ancestor or trying to fill in gaps in your family tree, understanding how to find and interpret death records can be valuable to your research. 

With the abundance of online resources and offline archives, it’s easier than ever to access death records and add new layers to your family story. By exploring different types of death records, using multiple sources to corroborate information, and building your skills in reading and interpreting these records, you can deepen your understanding of your family history and uncover new information about your ancestors.