How to Use Death Records

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To obtain a death record for an ancestor, you need a death date. This date could come from a family story, a family bible, an obituary, a cemetery listing or headstone, a death index, or indirectly from census records. The accuracy of a death date could vary. A family story could have an incorrect date. The date in a family bible, an obituary, cemetery listing/headstone, or a death index should be accurate. Census records can give only an approximate date. The way to use census records for a death date is when an ancestor appears in one census and then does not appear in the next census. That gives you a span of years to search. Usually that span is ten years.

If you do not have a family story, a family bible, or an obiturary, then the next best place to look is in a cemetery listing or a death index.

Online cemetery listings:

  • Find A Grave

Online death indexes:

  • Ancestry.com
  • FamilySearch.org
  • Social Security Death Index

Once you have a death date, you need to obtain the death record or certificate. Whether you should contact the county or state depends on the when the state started keeping this information at the state level. If you do not know the exact year your ancestor died, most government agencies will search only a ten-year period for each request. So it would be good to narrow the time period at much as possible before requesting a search.

  • Vitalrec.com has dates for when death records were kept by state or county.

Also see:

If you are not sure that searching for a death record is the next best option for your research, consider using the advice feature of this site. This will help you pick your next best steps in your research. Go to the Free Search Advisor.