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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Verify Details with Other Vital Records
Since records were usually created to document significant life events, your search should not stop at just a marriage record. Try to locate birth and death records, and where applicable, divorce records for the female ancestor you’re researching. Be aware that in most cases birth records are a bit more difficult to track down due to privacy restrictions, but such restrictions will vary depending on the location.
Birth records are sometimes more difficult to obtain depending on the state and its limitations to access. Birth records usually contain: name of the child; race of the child; gender of the child; date and place of birth; Mother’s name; Father’s name, and may contain other information about the parents or other children in the family. As noted above, a good website to consult for U.S. state-by-state information is VitalRec.com.
Here is a brief checklist of what type of records are associated with documenting an individual’s birth.
- Birth Announcement
- Birth Certificate (civil record)
- Birth Register
- Midwife or physician daybook
- Christening Record
- Family Bible Pages
- Baby Book
- Military Pension Record
- mother (as widow)
Civil death certificates commonly contain ages/dates of birth, and places for the deceased, as well as the place of birth for a woman’s parents. However, the information available is only as reliable as the informant, so be prepared for inaccuracies. Also, be sure to obtain the death certificates for all of a woman’s children. You should search Joe Beine’s Online Searchable Death Indexes for the USA, which will give you a good place to begin in finding what’s available and will tell you what databases are free and which require a fee-based subscription, as well as county level resources.
Those searching in the U.S. should also check the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The SSDI is a great tool for tracking immigrants in recent generations. It covers people with Social Security numbers whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration—mostly people who’ve died since the 1960s, when the administration began computerizing its records (a few dates go back as far as the 1930s; birth dates of these people stretch back into the 1800s).
Keep in mind that the index doesn’t cover everyone with a Social Security number, but mostly deaths reported so that a survivor could collect Social Security benefits.
The SSDI contains the following information:
- Social Security number
- full name
- death date
- birth date
- last known residence
- location of last benefit
- date and place of issuance
You’ll find numerous free versions of the SSDI online, and you can search several of them simultaneously through Stephen P. Morse’s One-Step search. Be aware that some sites update their information more frequently than others, and they all present results differently, so we recommend trying several versions of the databases below if you don’t find someone you think should be indexed.
Getting the Original Social Security Application
Once you’ve located your ancestor in the SSDI, you can request a copy of his or her original Social Security application form (SS-5). The SS-5 is what will potentially lead you to immigration information—it tells the deceased’s birthplace and parents’ names.
You can get the SS-5 by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Social Security Administration. Write a letter to the SSA that includes at least the applicant’s full name, birth date, state of birth and proof of death (such as the SSDI entry) and the Social Security Number (SSN). If you don’t know the SSN, include all the other information along with parents’ names, which can be helpful in distinguishing individuals with common names.
Mail your request to:
- Social Security Administration
OEO FOIA Workgroup
300 N. Green St.
P.O. Box 33022
Baltimore, MD 21290-3022
The fee for searching the records for the form SS-5 is $27 when the SSN is known and $29 when the number is unknown or is incorrect. Learn more about making Freedom of Information Act requests at their website.
Alternatively, you can use the Social Security Administration to submit a request via their online form.
View a sample SS-5 card on their website
Checklist for searching for death records:
- Military Pension (soldier, widow)
- Historical Marker (early settlers)
- Social Security Death Index/SS-5 application
- Probate Register (death date)
- Estate Settlement (woman, husband, father)
- Tombstone Inscription
- Tombstone Plate
- Funeral Sermon
- Funeral Notice
- Burial Register
- Death Certificate
- within city limits
- outside city limits
- City Directory (death date)
- Family Bible
- Mortuary File
- Biographical Sketch (over 8 million in print)
- son or daughter
- other family members
- Newspaper Vital Records
- Newspaper Gossip Column
- Final illness (hospital, insurance information)
- Birth of child
- Injury on job
In addition some actual indexes and images for some U.S. states and countries are also available on the FamilySearch Record Search website.
For information on locating Canadian birth and death records, see the Canadian Genealogy Centre website.
Also, remember to check the church record equivalents (baptismal or christening, marriage and burial) especially in cases where civil records are not accessible or available. For birth/baptismal records, note the names of witnesses or sponsors. Godparents are often related to the child.
Also check the following: Church Bulletins, Membership Lists, History and Anniversary Celebration Booklets. Membership lists may contain your ancestors’ names. The diocese or church secretary may know where you can find copies of old bulletins. Parishes celebrating milestone anniversaries would typically publish commemoration booklets with photos and historical notes. If not, then check the local historical society or library.
Obituaries are staples for genealogical research and may provide information about where a person is buried and often what funeral home handled the arrangements.
Check old newspapers for obituaries. These are available on microfilm at libraries and/or historical societies, and many can now be found online on various websites including subscription databases such as:
Cemetery and Burial Records
You can often find maiden names through cemetery and burial records as well as tombstones.
Try to locate the female ancestor or her spouse in published cemetery transcriptions, and then visit the cemetery. Once you locate the gravesite, verify the spelling of the woman’s name with the dates of birth and death listed on her tombstone (prior to 1925, there is a 90% error rate on tombstones). Be sure to check with the church or cemetery office to try and view a copy of the actual burial card or record. These often contain additional information such as the name and address of the person who purchased the plot/stone. If a woman died shortly after her marriage, she would often be buried with her family. A woman may have an infant buried alongside.
Be aware of multiple marriages and instances of two gravestones—one erected where she resided at the time of her death, and a second where she lived the majority of her adult life.
In America, Canada, Europe, and the British Isles, it is typical for the wife to be buried on the left of the husband. In older sections of the cemetery, extended family members are often buried in proximity to each other—children, grandchildren, aunt and uncles and their spouses, etc. In newer sections, husband and wife are together; extended families will be found in their own plots scattered through the cemetery or buried elsewhere. Small children are frequently buried at the foot of a grandparent’s grave or in a small grave between grandmother and grandfather. Watch carefully for these graves that almost seem out of place. When a child dies, the whole extended family grieves. Understanding the positioning of these burials could be important and may help with determining missing maiden surnames for the ladies on your pedigree chart.
Cemetery tombstones and memorials may be transcribed—many with photographs—and searchable online on sites such as:
There are a number of associated burial sources you should seek as well, especially for burials where no stone is found. For example:
- Stone-carvers ledgers or card files (many are now preserved in libraries and archives). For example, try searching the FamilySearch Library Catalog and do a Keyword search to locate resources about stone carvers.
Other records to search for include:
- Carpenters account books—these men built the coffins (especially city burials)
- Sextons records
- Society or business memorials and monuments, with names of members
- Eulogies, printed and distributed to attendees at the funeral with place of burial stated
- Memorial photography; try:
- Local funeral directors should have a cemetery map of their area. Some may also have indexed local maps to each nearby cemetery showing where people and families are buried.
- Military markers and memorials placed on battlefields
- Eagle or other Scout project files, often found at local public library or historical society
- Newspaper notices and obituaries
- Black-bordered funeral cards, with details on place of burial added
As you search Census (see below) and other genealogical records, note the names of stone-carvers, carpenters, sextons, and other officials associated with death and burial. Make a list.
Not every person had an obituary published, but sometimes memorial cards and funeral visitation books can provide key missing details.
Funeral or memorial cards for the deceased were prepared as a remembrance. Companies would search local newspapers for obituaries, prepare a card, and send it with a price list to the next of kin on speculation. Early cards were 4" x 6" and included the deceased’s birth and death dates, the funeral home name (and possibly address), along with funerary symbolism, and a bible verse. Later cards might bear a photo of the deceased. Modern memorial cards are smaller, printed in color, and sometimes laminated, but contain much of the same basic information.
Be sure to check with all of your relatives and extended family to see if they have saved any funeral/memorial cards. Genealogy Today has a searchable Funeral Cards Online database of thousands of funeral cards.
Funeral Home Records
If your search for a death certificate is unsuccessful, you might be able to obtain information about an ancestor’s passing from the files of the funeral director in the city or town where your ancestor died or is buried. These files usually contain a copy of the death certificate, burial permit, and/or copy of a transit permit (if the body was shipped to another state or country), and the text of an obituary, as well as the list of newspapers’ locations, possibly with a photograph of the deceased. Other documents may include body preparation instructions, casket and vault selection and invoice(s), Burial clothing (along with hair styling, and makeup instructions), an invoice, funeral service information, officiating clergy, and pallbearers, and miscellaneous correspondence which often contains the names, addresses and/or telephone numbers of family and friends to contact on behalf of the family.
Coroner Case Files
If your ancestor died suspiciously or of unusual causes, you may have luck with coroner’s files from the town or city in which they died. Simply do a Google search for “Coroner’s Files” and your location availability of records and access to them will vary.
A great example of preserved coroner’s case files can be found in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center is conducting a preservation project to make the Coroner Case Files of Allegheny County more accessible to researchers and the public. The case files were tri-folded paper documents filling close to 800 cubic foot boxes. This extensive documentation of Pittsburgh history contains evidence of the industrial accidents, homicides, suicides, epidemics, and the myriad causes of Allegheny County citizen’s suspicious or unusual deaths between 1887 and 1973. A student workforce has helped with preserving and identifying the records. See their Coroner Case File Documentation Wiki. It includes links to other Coroner’s offices and resources.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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