All U.S. states have required death certificates since 1919 although most states instituted death certificates or registers prior to this. Historically, Americans followed 16th century era English customs of having ministers document baptisms, marriages and burials, which provide indications of birth, marriage, and death dates. The first American colonial law about such records was in 1632 and required each parish minister or warden to present baptisms, marriages and burials. Within the decade, the Massachusetts Bay Colony required town clerks to record births and deaths. However, the American Colonies and later the United States were slow at developing a vital record registration system. By 1833, only five U.S. cities -- Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia -- regularly recorded vital records whereas ten European countries maintained vital records. Massachusetts was the first to require state-level filing of vital records in 1844. For states with Appalachian counties, death certificates were required in the following years: Alabama (1908), Georgia (1919), Kentucky (1911), Maryland (1898), Mississippi (1912), North Carolina (1913), Ohio (1909), Pennsylvania (1906), South Carolina (1915), Tennessee (1914), Virginia (1912), and West Virginia (1917).
Death certificates list
- Birth and death dates
- Birth and death places
- Parents’ names
- Parents’ birthplaces
- Spouse’s name
- Whether or not the spouse is alive
- Social Security Number
- Veteran status
- Cause of death
- Burial place
- Informant’s name
Death certificates are maintained by many county courthouses although some counties send them to their respective state archives or the public health department. The Centers for Disease Control maintains a website at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm that publishes Where to Write for Vital Records -- Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces for each state. Facility rules and fees for examining and duplicating death certificates vary and genealogists are recommended to contact an employee in advance of a visit. Some researchers also use on-line services that will provide scanned or transcribed (typed) death certificates for a fee. The Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources provides detailed information about these primary resources for each state.
Researchers seeking alternative sources for death dates and names of parents or spouses may find success in church records, intestate probates, mortality censuses, and wills.
Reading handwriting can be difficult particularly because previous generations used different symbols than are currently used. The library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintains a Writing Guide for researchers reading documents dating from the 18th century forward.
For more reading
Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1974. (App Coll CS 45.G73)
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006. (App Coll CS 49.S65)