Thursday, May 19, 2011

Research Tip : My Great-Grandfather Had Three Death Certificates! (Part 1)

Many times we genealogists have trouble scrounging up one death record for our ancestors.  Imagine if they had as many as two or three different official records of death.  Depending upon the time period and geographic area, it is likely that more than one version of the record exists, and that they are not identical.

In Michigan, death records were kept beginning in early 1867, by state law.  There were three jurisdictions at play from that point on...state records, county records, & local records.  When I began my family research in 1982, I worked almost exclusively with county records, becoming a temporary fixture at the county courthouse.  By the hour, I would sit and go through the large 11 x 17 ledgers and hand-transcribe information from the records.  Photocopies weren't an option then, only certified copies and that was financially prohibitive.

I was very thorough and thought that I had harvested all of the death information available for family members.  It wasn't until years later while working in the Local History department that I made an exciting discovery.  We received a donation of a copy of a state version of a death certificate for a Van Buren County death.  When I compared that to the county record, I found some astonishing information.  Although I had always known that records were kept at the state, county & local levels, I had never bothered to compare the content & availability of each record.

CASE IN POINT - Loron Robbins, died April 29, 1919, in Antwerp Township, Van Buren County, Michigan.  This is recorded in Liber D Page 213 of the county ledgers (there were no certificates at that time at the county level).  Information included:  name, date & place of death, gender, race, marital status, age, cause of death, birthplace, occupation, parents names & birthplaces, and date of recording.  Pretty complete, right?

In addition to county records of death, the Local History Collection also has registers of local vital records from some communities, entitled Transcript of Certificate of Death - Local Register.  Among those is a register for Antwerp Township including a death certificate (yes, certificate) for Loron Robbins.  The local record has all of the above categories of information and with these additional items: 

  • Length of residence in city or town where death occurred
  • How long in the U.S. if of foreign birth
  • If married, widowed, or divorced, name of husband/wife
  • Date of birth
  • Informant's name & address
  • Date of filing & name of registrar
  • Dates attended by physician & name of physician
  • Contributory causes of death
  • Where was disease contracted if not at place of death
  • Did an operation precede death - date of operation
  • Was there an autopsy
  • Place & date of burial
  • Name & address of undertaker
Whew!  That means for all of my relatives for whom I had only viewed the county death record, I was missing a possible 13 more pieces of information.

The state version of the record for Loron Robbins is very similar with a few minor differences:

  • The local version was all hand-written and the state is mostly typewritten
  • Loron's middle initial is "P" on the state version, and "F" on the local & county
  • The informant's name is "Ette" on the state record and "Etta" on the county
  • The state version gives 5 years under Contributory Cause duration and the local version is blank
Granted in this case, these are not large differences, but differences non-the-less.  Who knows what the differences may be on your ancestor's records?

Next time, we'll talk about how to find & access the three versions of these records, both online & off...