Looking for the Dead

Tracing your family tree is easier than it used to be, thanks to technology. Thomas MacEntee takes a look at websites, mobile apps and other genealogy resources available today. Originally published September 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.


The voices of our forebearers were once stifled by the musty shelves of vital statistics bureaus and historical societies. Today, they are just a keyboard away. The gentle din of history, as viewed through the life stories of those who came before us, can be heard loud and clear. If you know where to listen.

Traditionally, those on the hunt for death records would seek out obituaries at the local library or perhaps visit a cemetery and speak with the sexton or custodian about burial records for a specific person. With recent advances in technology—primarily websites and smart phone applications—the family history sleuth has a wealth of new tools available, all from the comfort of the home or office.

Death Records – The Types of Records Produced

When a death occurs, what types of records are typically produced? Commonly the record set includes obituaries, cemetery records, burial records and the like. But remember to dig deep and look for the uncommon records where the dead can be found: funeral or memorial cards, funeral home records including deeds and bills of sale, wills and probate records, legal notices, estate sale advertisements and more.

Let’s take a tour of some of the various online death records available, including free death records:


•    Archives.com: Archives.com (http://www.archives.com) has aggregated an online database of obituary information. Each obituary record also links back to the originating newspaper where it was posted.

•    Legacy.com: Legacy.com (http://www.legacy.com) partners with hundreds of newspapers in North America and around the world, and features obituaries for approximately 75 percent of people who die in the U.S. On Legacy.com, you can search more than 10 million obituaries and 78 million Social Security Death Index records.

•    ObitMessenger™: Another Legacy.com resource is ObitMessenger™ (https://www.legacy.com/obit-messenger) which delivers obituaries to your inbox based on your search criteria. It’s like Google Alerts for obituaries!

•    Obituaries.com: U.S. and Canadian obituaries grouped by state/province and newspaper (http://www.obituaries.com).

•    Obituary Central: An online database for finding obituaries and performing cemetery searches (http://www.obitcentral.com).

•    Online Newspapers: Almost every newspaper has a Web presence these days and you can find current and even archived obituaries at these sites (http://www.usnpl.com).

Death Certificates

A death certificate is likely the most “official” record of a death. Depending upon the jurisdiction, a death certificate contains more than just basic information about the deceased. Other data may include the name of the informant (who provides the information about the deceased) as well as the attending physician and the funeral home director. Most death certificates are available on the county level and copies can be ordered online or in writing.

•    The Records Project: Get access to the procedures for obtaining death certificates from the death records section of The Records Project (http://recordsproject.com/death/). Also contains helpful articles on how death certificates are used for genealogy research.

•    Where to Write for Vital Records: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a comprehensive site (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm) organized by state on how to order vital records including death certificates.

Cemetery and Burial Records

The most common form of a cemetery or burial record online is a gravestone transcription which is sometimes paired with a photo of the gravestone.

•    Find A Grave: The granddaddy of cemetery record websites with over 66 million online records. Find A Grave (http://www.findagrave.com/) is a contribution-driven community where you can adopt a cemetery and even make photo requests for other users to fulfill.

•    Interment.net: A free online library of cemetery records from thousands of cemeteries across the world. Interment.net (http://www.interment.net/) has a search engine and also allows you to browse by cemetery.

•    Nationwide Gravesite Locator: Run by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the Nationwide Gravesite Locator (http://gravelocator.cem.va.gov) allows you to search the cemetery records of your veteran ancestors.

Uncommon Death-Related Records

Don’t forget to use these sites to locate probate records, legal notices and more.

•    GeneaLinks Death Records Directory: A catch-all directory linking to sites with extensive indices of obituaries and cemetery records.  GeneaLinks (http://www.genealinks.com/death.htm) also hosts directories to a number of different genealogical records databases for all areas of research.

•    Online Historical Newspapers: Besides the obituary, a death would often create a slew of legal notices related to a probate court or even an estate auction. Online Historical Newspapers (https://sites.google.com/site/onlinenewspapersite/) allows you to look for free and fee-based newspapers by state and county.

Death On The Go – Mobile Apps for Death Records

In the past year, several new mobile apps have come on the scene to help you with your genealogy research using death records, specifically cemetery records.

•    BillionGraves: Allows you to not only locate cemetery records including images of cemeteries and headstones, but you can also use BillionGraves (http://billiongraves.com) to contribute death records as well. Provides valuable geo-location information for individual graves within cemeteries.

•    RestingSpot: A directory of cemetery records and online tributes complete with GPS coordinates for exact grave location. RestingSpot (http://restingspot.com) also allows you to create a webpage memorial to share with family and friends.

Tips and Tricks for Death Records

Having problems locating the death record you need? Or perhaps you need help deciphering a death record you’ve located? Here is some advice on using online death records:

•    Gather information from family members. A good starting place is to talk to relatives who might have attended a funeral or knew the deceased. Write down every detail including dates, names and places.

•    Variations matter. Memories fade over time so be open to performing several searches using date ranges instead of specific dates. Also remember to search wide rather than narrow: instead of a specific city, search the entire county.

•    Don’t forget collateral searches. Write down names of witnesses on death certificates, names of those listed in the obituary, names of those who signed the memorial book at the funeral home. You never know when you’ll find a connection between those names and the deceased.

•    Not all records are available online. Despite the wealth of online tools listed above, make a visit to your local public library or archive. There you’ll find bound newspapers or even microfilms for local newspapers. A library card can grant you access to databases such as Archives.com and HeritageQuest. Some even grant you access to these databases from your home computer.

•    Make cemetery visits count. Before you go, make sure you understand state and local laws pertaining to cemeteries. In some places, you can’t make a rubbing of a headstone; in others you can’t enter a private cemetery without permission. Also call ahead and see if the custodian or sexton will be available for your visit. And one valuable tip for small town cemeteries: see if there is a town historian since they often will provide valuable insights on the cemetery and its history.

Remember that our ancestors speak to us in various ways including the paper trail created by their passing. Those death records including obituaries, cemetery records and others are only a quick online search away!

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Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons/Family Art Studio


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Comment by Gwen H on February 27, 2012 at 12:38pm

Without these resources, I would not know of the death of some of my relatives. With marriages and different last names some are not always remembered or found to be notifyed. With the passing of time addresses, phone numbers, and reltives scattered across the country, not everyone learns of the loss of loved ones.

I have had that experience recently and learning of the loss of an Aunt, led me to the very painful knowledge of the loss of younger Cousin's too. Sad that we are becoming so fragmented. In this day of instant comunication we are also losing the closeness of what "family" once was.

Comment by Denyse A. Baizana on February 17, 2012 at 7:55pm






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