10 Documents Every Genealogist Should Have

Published March 18, 2016

Featured Image (above) from Your Scottish Ancestry

Learn more about your ancestors with the help of this checklist compiled by Bill Dollarhide. They are places to look for a death record. All ten sources should be obtained for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and every member of a family on your family group sheet.

1. Death Certificate. A rule in genealogy is to treat the brothers and sisters of your ancestors as equals. That means you need to obtain genealogical sources for all of them. For instance, for every ancestor on your pedigree chart, and for every brother or sister of an ancestor, you need to obtain a death certificate (assuming they are dead). If there were six siblings in an ancestor’s family, a death certificate for each brother and sister will give six different sources about the same parents; places where the family lived; names of spouses; names of cemeteries; names of funeral directors; and other facts about a family. If a death certificate for your ancestor fails to provide the name of the deceased’s mother, a sibling’s death certificate may give the full maiden name. How do you get a death certificate?

2. Funeral record. A death certificate may mention the name and location of a funeral director. A funeral record may include names of survivors; names of the persons responsible for the funeral expenses; and often, obscure biographical information about the deceased not available anywhere else. Modern funeral records are full of genealogical information about the person who died and may include copies of newspaper obituaries, death certificates, printed eulogies, funeral programs, and other details about the person. A reference to a burial permit, cremation, or cemetery can be found here as well. Generally, funeral directors are very easy to talk to and they are usually cooperative (they want your family’s business). Even if the old name of a funeral home is not listed in a current directory, it should be possible to locate the current funeral home holding the records of an earlier one. These businesses rarely go out of business, but are more often taken over by another funeral director. If at one time a town had two or three funeral homes, but only one today, the Yellow Book listing is still the source for finding the current funeral home in that town, which can lead you to information about the older funeral home. Funeral directors are also experts on the location of cemeteries in their area.

3. Cemetery Record. If the name of a cemetery is mentioned on the death certificate or funeral record, that cemetery is now a source of information about the person who died. There may be a record in the sexton’s office of the cemetery, or off-site at a caretaker’s home; and the gravestone inscription may be revealing as well. When you contact a funeral home, ask about the cemetery where the person was buried, and whether they have an address or phone number for the cemetery office, or at least know who might be the keeper of records for the cemetery. At the same time, ask the funeral director for the names of monument sellers/stone masons who cater to cemeteries in the area. As a back-up, a local stone mason may have a record of a monument inscription for the deceased’s gravestone.

4. Obituary. A newspaper obituary was probably published soon after the person’s death. Old newspapers from the town where the person died are usually available at the local public library. They may be on microfilm. If the library responds but says it is unable to look for an obituary or make copies for you, then you may need to find a person living in that town to go to the library for you. One way to locate such a person is to write to a local genealogical society and ask if they know someone who can do a bit of research for you. Most genealogical societies have a volunteer who responds to such requests, and there will most likely be a small fee for this service. You may also find your genealogy friend on the Internet. Do a place search for people involved in genealogy in a particular place near where you need help, drop them an E-mail message and promise to do something in exchange for them. A huge collection of historic newspaper obituaries are now on the Internet.

5. Social Security record. If a person died within the last 35 years or so, the death certificate probably includes the deceased’s social security number. With or without a person’s social security number, you can write for a copy of any deceased person’s original application for a social security card, called a form SS-5.

6. Probate Records. Details pertaining to a deceased person’s estate may be located in a county courthouse. These records may provide important information about the heirs of the deceased. Probate records may include dockets (court calendars), recorded wills, administrator’s records, inventories of estates, sheriff’s sales, or judgments.

7. Private Death Records (Insurance Papers, Medical Records, Etc.). If the deceased had insurance, there is undoubtedly a record of the death within the insurance company’s files. There may be much more information concerning the deceased’s survivors, and the disposition of an estate. Hospital records are almost always closed, but a close family member may be able to get some information; and records at a Doctor’s Office are also usually closed, but again, close family members may be given access. The cover sheet of a patient’s file in a Hospital, Nursing Home, or Doctor’s Office, is almost always the page containing vital information, including birth, marriage, divorce, occupation, health insurance, and name of closest kin or person to contact in an emergency. A close family member should be able to access that information.

8. Coroner and Medical Examiner Records exist for any person who died under suspicious conditions, or for whom an autopsy was performed, or in most cases for people who died outside of a hospital. Coroner records are public records kept at the county level in virtually all states. In addition to the circumstances of the death, there may be vital details about the deceased. Locating a Coroner or Medical Examiner for a county is not difficult. Many have their own websites, or are part of a county government website.

9. Military Records for deceased veterans are public records. Write for a form SF-80 to request copies from any soldier or sailor’s military file. Next of kin to a deceased veteran can access data online. Others need to use the for SF-80 to obtain information about the deceased veteran.

10. Church Records. A death record may be recorded within a church’s records, plus information about a burial.

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