How to use death certificates in family tree research

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01 November 2016
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Discover what useful information can be found on a death certificate in our guide to using death certificates in family tree research.

Discover what useful information can be found on a death certificate in our guide to using death certificates in family tree research. Get started on your family history journey with Family Tree's guide for beginners, available to download now.

Civil registration of deaths in England and Wales began on 1 July 1837, replacing the Church of England’s records of burials as the primary legal record. It’s fair to say that, as a genealogical source, death certificates fall far short of what we might expect from documents recording one of the three main events in our ancestors’ lives. In fact, some family historians consider death certificates to be of so little use that they rarely, if ever, go to the trouble and expense of obtaining copies of them.

Most researchers, however, like to ‘kill off their ancestors’, mapping their whole lives from cradle to grave. In the old days, when the only way to do this was to carry out a physical search through the General Register Office’s (GRO) index books, this could be a time-consuming and exhausting process. Nowadays, unless the name is particularly common, it’s usually possible to find our ancestors’ deaths quite easily, using an online database such as FreeBMD.

Initially, the GRO indexes recorded just the name of the deceased and the registration district in which the death occurred. From 1866, the age of the deceased (in years) was added to the index (making identification of individuals much easier) and in that year only, middle names were replaced by initials. In the September quarter of 1910 middle names were dropped again in favour of initials, but there were no further changes until the June quarter of 1969, when the deceased’s date of birth started to be shown instead of their age at death (see below).

Details on death certificates

The following information was recorded on death certificates in England and Wales between 1 July 1837 and 31 March 1969:

  • When and where died
  • Name and surname
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Signature, description and residence of informant
  • When registered.

It’s important to bear in mind that the information recorded on a death certificate is only as reliable as the knowledge of the person supplying it. Ages can often be no more than an intelligent guess and there is a demonstrable tendency to give ages in round numbers; research concerning ages at death recorded in the late 19th century reveals that people were apparently around 20% more likely to die aged 80 than they were to die at the ages of 79 or 81!

The cheapest website to buy a copy of an English or Welsh marriage from is the official government website, www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates. Each certificate costs £9.25 (be wary of sites charging more than this).

Who registered the death?

Don’t ignore the information about the informant. This was often a relative, although the relationship isn’t always stated. In the case of an adult male, this could be the only useful genealogical detail recorded on the certificate. Even if the informant turns out to have been a neighbour, their identity could provide a vital clue.

Improved format

From 1 April 1969, the form of the death certificate was changed with the addition of the date and place of birth of the deceased and, for married or widowed women, the maiden surname. These details are genealogical gold dust and serve to highlight the dearth of useful information on earlier death certificates. The date of birth is of particular interest to us now that the 1939 National Register is available, as we can use the details to find matches in the records.

Wills, probate & burials

Death records have obvious links to records of burials and wills. The entries in the National Probate calendars (see probatesearch.service.gov.uk) record a substantial amount of detail about the individuals concerned, although this varies significantly over the years. The calendars (from 1858 right up until 1967) record so much information that, for family history purposes, they can virtually be used to replace a death certificate. The person’s full name, residence, date and place of death and the names of their executors or administrators are recorded; it’s just the age, cause of death and information about the informant that are missing.

However, not everyone left a will; to put it in perspective, 528,624 deaths were registered in England and Wales in the year 1880, but the probate calendars record the wills and administrations of just 42,608 people who died that year, representing only 8 per cent of the total number of deaths, and this figure includes a significant number of people who died in other parts of the UK or overseas.

For many researchers, tracing a record of a burial is as important as finding the death certificate, particularly if it can lead to the discovery of a gravestone. Records of burials and monumental inscriptions can also be used as a tool to identify death records.

Scotland

Unlike their English and Welsh equivalents, Scottish death certificates represent a significant genealogical source. The names of both parents (including the mother’s maiden surname) are recorded as standard, although it’s worth considering the reliability of this information. In 1855, the first year of civil registration in Scotland, additional information was recorded including the deceased’s birthplace, the names and years of birth of their children, the years of death of any children who had predeceased them and their place of burial. These were all dropped in 1856, with the exception of the place of burial, which survived until 1860. Visit www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

Ireland

Irish death certificates are identical to the standard English and Welsh format with the addition of a column to record the individual’s ‘condition’; ie their marital status.  For the Republic of Ireland order certificates from www.groireland.ie and for Northern Ireland go to www.nidirect.gov.uk/gro.

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