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Philadelphia Death Records and the WPA Index

Researchers who have used the collection of Philadelphia death records may also want to consult a related record known officially as the Index to Registration of Deaths in the City of Philadelphia, 1803–1860 and commonly called the WPA Index to Burials.

Until the advent of online images of the death records, this index provided access to the many death records that have been filed by date (weekly, monthly, or quarterly depending on the year) and then alphabetically by cemetery name. Since the records for just these almost sixty years appear on more than 100 rolls of microfilm, it’s easy to understand why an index is almost a necessity.

Like the online index, the WPA project includes name and age of decedent, date and cause of death, physician’s name, and place of burial. Parents’ names are included for most children, but rarely for adults. Researchers have been using it for years to identify an ancestral cemetery so they can mine those additional records.

The main reason researchers should continue to look at the WPA Index is that it provides a different arrangement of the information. Sometimes it’s easier to pick out family groups on the alphabetically-arranged pages than it is when doing individual searches online. Once an ancestor’s record is found, browsing through other entries for the same surname often reveals others buried in the same cemetery or treated by the same physician, connections that may lead to more relatives. The index is also useful for identifying children whose birth and death took place between census years since Philadelphia did not yet have vital record registration.

It’s important to remember that these records are cemetery returns. When the record began in 1803, the city of Philadelphia was roughly equivalent to today’s downtown area and was only a small part of Philadelphia County. The city required cemeteries within its limits to report all the burials in their facility. A few cemeteries in areas bordering the city also filed returns. Depending on the time period reports were made weekly, monthly, or quarterly.

Hence the records include only a few buried outside the city even if they died within the city. They do, however, include individuals buried in the city who may have died elsewhere. In most cases the cemetery filed the physician’s written statement about the death, although in a small number of cases only a cemetery-created list of burials is available.

The WPA Index is available on microfilm several repositories including the Family History Library (films 978,982–979,996) and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Both repositories, along with the Philadelphia City Archives, hold microfilm of the actual returns. The Free Library of Philadelphia has a paper copy of the index in its government documents department. The records themselves begin on FHL film 1,855,028.


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