Saturday, 12 July 2014

Killing Them Off - It can help knock down those brick walls

What Death Records have you used?

One thing that many genealogists do not pursue, as much as they should, is death records.
Even though as beginners we are advised to kill off the individuals in our trees. 
However, unless the death records available, provide clues to aid the addition of further generations, many of us think it is something that can be left till last.

But is this really such a good idea, and are these records as lacking in information as we believe.

So what records are available that can help us to determine that our family member has died.

In England and Wales here are some of the records I  have used
  • Death Certificates - these were required from 1837. However they are not always available for the early years.
  • Burial Records for church or cemetery.
  • Newspapers - obituaries, death notices and inquest reports.
  • Headstones - although many are illegible.

As I discovered only this week, the amount of information found in any of these records can vary widely.

Death Certificates or Registers

Certificates in England and Wales contain only a limited amount of information, although you can sometimes discover a daughter's married surname if she registered the death. Here is a useful guide to what can be found on these certificates

In Scotland it is very different. The Scotland's People website allows access to images of the registers (for a fee), the details as to what information can be found on these, is explained on this page .
This extra information can be a great help. 
So if you have family who died in Scotland it may be worth your while checking out those death records.

Burial Records or Registers

Burial records may be your first port of call for earlier years, but I would always recommend finding the original record where possible as sometimes additional information is recorded. Even for more recent burials the registers can confirm where the individual was buried and where any memorial may be found. 
Today many individuals are cremated. Although this was less common in the past, a lack of a burial record, cannot be considered to indicate that an individual is or was still alive and searching for a cremation may need to be considered.
If someone was cremated it may be more difficult to find the records but books of remembrance and memorials can be found.


For sudden deaths then newspapers can reveal much about the family as an inquest will look into the circumstances of the death. 

Death notices may contain little more than a death date, but others can be more like an obituary, with details of family members. 
They may give clues to other places to find records or mention the company involved in the burial.

Headstones and Memorials

Headstones can be very susceptible to the ravages of time and weather conditions. Some older memorials can still be read today whilst other newer ones can be illegible. The materials used and the position in the burial ground are all factors affecting the memorial.
Many family history societies will have transcribed headstones in the past and this may be the only way of finding what was written on the memorial.
Find a Grave is worth looking at even for more recent deaths as is Billion Graves .

I have not extended my search beyond England and Wales so I would suggest that if you are looking for records in other parts of the world you check out Cyndi's List  to find out what records may be available or where you may be able to start looking.

Finding out when and how someone died can bring so much to your story and without a record of death how can you be sure that there was not some other reason why that individual has apparently disappeared. 
This does not mean that we record individuals as living well past the usual life expectancy, but a deceased without a death date is always open to questions. 

Divorce was not readily available for our ancestors and if someone was of the right age, they may have another, yet to be discovered, family.

Widows of any age may have remarried. So that death record you found was it your person or another with the same name. 
This has happened to me and I discovered the person had remarried and was living with her new husband on the next census. She finally died some decades after the original date I had found.

If you have found death records to be useful please share what you have found with others in the community. If you have found any unusual sources or particularly useful records then I am sure others would love to know about them.

As I have mentioned before we all benefit from collaboration none of us know everything so please share your thoughts. 
Whilst you may help others it is also possible that others may help you.



  1. Hi Hilary - great post. A useful resource for killing off one's relatives in the UK is the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 which, among other places, is available through The snippet in the calendar often mentions executors which can help to connect to family. A surprising number of people went through probate. They did not have to be wealthy. They also did not have to die in England nor did probate need to have been close to the time of death - it could occur when sorting out the affairs of another member of the family. I have had deaths in Argentina and Australia turn up in these records. Regards Anne

    1. Thanks for this comment +Anne Young. I have also found the probate indexes useful and as a follow on wills can add a great deal of extra information. Wills before 1858 in England and Wales can be more difficult to track down but add so much when you find them.

  2. Really helpful post, I have found the probate records very useful as well. Speaking from an Australian perspective, TROVE, newspaper archive is a source that I have found to really useful, especially if family member died in unusual circumstances?

  3. There are inquest files for some deaths that were never registered (see J is for Jurors and Justice Department). Death certificates from the eastern States of Australia are very informative, so it is worth checking whether any family members died here. There are a lot of other 'death-related' tips and links, especially for the UK and Australia, in 10 Tips for Wills, Intestacies and Probate.

  4. A very timely post, Hilary, as I'm in the middle of using death records to attack one of my toughest brick walls. I'm using parish registers available on Find My Past at the moment, but FreeBMD and FreeREG are both useful, and Family Search can help, too.

  5. Thanks Hilary for this well set out summary - a good resource for those of us with ancestors from the "old country".

  6. Wise advice Hilary. I agree it is something that can be overlooked. Another risk that can arise from not following up deaths/burials is assuming that the only birth/baptism is the right one when a check of the records would show that child had died. It also ties into getting certificates which can verify particular information.


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World Wide Genealogy Team