By: Chris Nickson (24 Dec 12)
They say only two things in life are certain: death and taxes, and there are records of both. But to a genealogist, death is actually the least important part of the cycle. Once a person's been born and had children, their genealogical use is, to all intents and purposes, over. After all, you can trace your ancestors without knowing when they died, and a lot of family trees don't include the date of death.
But death certificates definitely have their place in genealogy. The age at death can give a very close idea of birth date, and the home address can be used to locate the family on the census.
Death Certificates: What to Look For to Help Trace Family History
As with birth and marriage certificates, deaths have been recorded by the state since 1837. However, if all you need to know is the age of a person at death, for much of the period you don't need to find a copy of the full certificate. Between 1866 and1969, the age at death was listed in the national index (a zero means under the age of one). After that, date of birth is shown instead.
The death certificate shows where and when the deceased died, name and surname, sex, age (or d.o.b.), occupation (or last occupation if retired) and address, and cause of death, along with the signature, description and address of the person giving information about the death, along with when it was registered and the name of the registrar.
One thing to be taken with a pinch of salt is the cause of death. All too often it's a euphemism for something
else, and as you go back to Victorian times, diagnoses become notoriously inaccurate. Since 1874 a doctor's certificate has been a necessity for the issuance of a death certificate, and often accompanies it. Indeed, until that date, it wasn't even necessary to put a cause of death on the certificate! That said, between 1858 and 1874, a certificate should state whether the death had been certified or not by a doctor.
You might notice a reference to a certified period of time in the cause of death column. This might refer to the statutory maximum period between death and burial. In the case of an epidemic like cholera, for example, it would be 24 hours. These figures can prove to be of interest.
There are actually rules covering informants of death. If an inquest has been held, then the coroner should be the informant. Otherwise it should be a relative of the deceased present at the death, a relative there during the final illness, a relative in the district, anyone present at the death, the occupier if they knew of the death, anyone else on the premises, and finally the person disposing of the body. Deaths must normally be registered within five days.
Records of Stillbirths Could Help Your Family History Research
Stillbirths are a category unto themselves, and create an entry that's both birth and death certificate. The compulsory registration of stillbirths only began in 1927, with the cause of death only added after 1960. Prior to 1874 you didn't need a certificate to bury a stillborn child. A stillbirth has to be registered within three weeks of the event. Before 1983 the baby couldn't be name, and still can't be named in retrospect.