Genealogy Help

Self-help - Death certificates

Making genealogy accessible

It is possible to get a great deal of information from the death of a person too. Although death certificates may not give you the name of someone's parents, they may give you an interesting insight into how the person lived and died. They can also be useful for determining the age at death (from which you can work out the likely birth year in earlier records). If you can't find a death record, there's a chance that the person may have emigrated.

The main sources for these records include:

  • death certificates.
  • church records.
  • newspapers.

There are, of course, also other records, such as wills, gravestones and death duties.

Death Certificates

Death certificates in England or Wales

An 1836 Act of Parliament led to the General Register Office to record deaths (and also births and marriages) in England and Wales. Recording began on 1 July 1837.

If your ancestor died before 1 July 1837, then they won't have a death certificate, so you must look for other sources. The best sources are church records.

If your ancestor died after 1 July 1837, then they should have a death certificate. You can't see the original registers, so first you must search the death record indexes to find your ancestor, and then send off for the certificate. The registers list the name, quarter and year of death, volume and page of the reference, later the age, then the date of birth.

Death certificates in Scotland

Civil registration was compulsory from 1855, for all religious denominations. Until 1860, the records even showed the name of the undertaker. If your relative died in 1855 itself, the death certificate even includes their birthplace and the names of any children.

Church Records

If you are looking to find the death records for an ancestor prior to 1837, your best option is the parish registers, and you can also these after 1837 too. The parish register often just gives you information about burials, which often took place a day or so after the death.

Winston Churchill death register record

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The Death Certificate

Sample UK Death Certificate

It’s important to remember that people don't necessarily die at home! It is quite possible that your ancestor was away visiting or working, and died there, thus will be registered in an unexpected registration district.

1 - Date and Place of Death

This is the date and place of death. Most deaths are registered within a day or two of the date of death. Today a death certified by a doctor should be registered within 5 days of the death, and certified by post-mortem within 14 days. If there has been an accident, suspicious circumstances or an unexplained death and an inquest have been held, the lag between death and registration could be as long as a year, although the delay was often still only a couple of weeks. The death is not officially registered until the inquest has been held.

If the death being registered is that of a baby that lived for less than 24 hours, then nowadays, the hours or minutes that the baby lived would be shown with words such as "Aged 2 hours" or "Aged 11 minutes" but this was not common practice in the Victorian era – the child was practically classed as stillborn.

If a body has been found and the precise date of death cannot be ascertained then there may be wording such as "Dead body found on..." or "On or about the 12th June...". If someone is taken ill but is dead by the time they have reached hospital there could be the wording " Found dead on arrival at..." but this is a more modern occurrence.

The place of death could be anywhere! Note that you don’t necessarily have the address of the deceased. Column 1 is the place where the death occurred and Column 7 gives the address of the person registering the death but nowhere is there a column that gives the specific address of the deceased. If someone dies away from home and the death is registered by someone other than the wife or husband of the deceased you do not have the home address of the person.

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2 - Name and Surname of the Deceased

This should be self-explanatory, although you may find misspellings or name changes, this could throw you if you have not uncovered this prior to looking for the death records. This is the name by which they were known at the time of death. If, therefore, someone started life with a different name but by usage has come to be called something else you will not find any reference to the original name on older certificates. Sometimes people also drop or switch a first name. Prior to 1924, no adoptions were registered, so the name on a death certificate and birth certificate won’t match.

3 - Sex

The sex of the deceased is shown as male or female and although occasionally mistakes are made in this column it is usually obvious from the rest of the information in the other columns if a mistake has been made and has not been corrected at the time.

4 - Age

The age of the deceased is shown at the date of death in earlier certificates. This column must be viewed with a great deal of suspicion! Only if other evidence proves this correct should it be taken to be so. It is best to use it as a starting guide to give you some idea of how old the person was but no more. Later certificates and registers list the [given] date of birth.

There are two reasons why this information is likely to be incorrect. The first is - that the information is not being given by the person to whom it relates! It is being given by someone else - possibly a relative or neighbour of the deceased - and the more remote the relationship, the less accurate it is likely to be. Where the information is being given by the master of the workhouse, or the neighbour who was sitting with the dying person, the less likely it is to be accurate. Even sons and daughters don't know their own parents’ exact dates of birth.

The other reason why the information may be incorrect is that the deceased person has lied about it for most of their life or just did not know themselves when they were born and how old they were. Especially in the early days of registration, it was not necessary for people to know exactly how old they were - after all, there was no compulsory schooling, no old age pension, etc., where it is important to know the date of birth. Many people " adjusted" their ages at one point in their life for whatever reason and thereafter kept to their new age.

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5 - Occupation

The occupation of the deceased will depend on the sex of the deceased, marital status and age, and the date at which the registration is being made.

For a man of working age - his occupation should be shown. In the 19th century, most men had to work for as long as possible and could still be working at any age. It is possible that an occupation may be given simply as retired (which would imply that they had financial resources from other income), or it may say something on the lines of "not in gainful employment", "out of employment" or similar for someone too old, too sick to work or who had lost a job during periods of recession.

The occupation shown is only the last one that the deceased had which may not give the true picture - for example, a man might be a blacksmith most of his life but towards the end of his working life he might not be able to continue this and be shown only as a labourer on the death certificate.

For a single woman or widow - her occupation might be shown, equally, there might be simply a blank. For a woman from a wealthy background (even well into her twenties or more) it might say " daughter of... (name of father) .... (his occupation)."

For a wife or widow - her occupation was considered to be being married to her husband! So there will not be any reference to her paid employment (and a vast number of women did work) but it will say wife (or widow) of.... (husbands name) ..... (his occupation). So you cannot tell from this whether a woman had been working - even when they held down professional jobs as they might have done towards the end of the 19th century and up to the present. Married women were not shown as having an occupation until 1969.

For a child, it will say Son or Daughter of .......(fathers name)..............(his occupation). Again there is no reference to the mother until 1969 unless the child was illegitimate in which case it will say Son or daughter of .....(mothers name)............(her occupation).

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6 - Cause Of Death

There are 4 possible scenarios relating to a death:
1. Uncertified death.
2. Certification by a doctor.
3. Certification by a post-mortem but without an Inquest.
4. Certification following an inquest.

In the early days of registration, all the deaths were uncertified. The informant simply gave the cause as they saw it. And they were probably not far from the truth. You tend to get simple causes such as measles, stroke, gout, childbirth, etc.

By 1845 most of the causes of death are followed by the word - certified. Where those words are not found then a doctor did not write a certificate of cause of death. Many families who had sick and dying relatives would not necessarily have called a doctor to see the patient - doctors had to be paid!

By 1875 the cause of death is followed by "Certified by .....(name of doctor) ..........(doctors qualifications)" in which case the doctor in attendance on the deceased in his last illness has signed a medical certificate of cause of death. This led to the use of medical jargon e.g. myocardial infarction (commonly - heart attack) or cerebrovascular accident (a stroke). A doctor is only qualified to sign if he has been in attendance on the deceased in his last illness AND has either seen the deceased within 14 days of his death or saw the deceased after death. If there is no doctor who qualifies under these restrictions then the death must be notified to the coroner.

If the post-mortem gives a clear cause of death and the circumstances are not suspicious then the death will be registered on a coroners post-mortem and the certifying person will be given as the coroner or it may just say "post-mortem" or "PM".

The medical jargon has, however, changed and some are no longer in common use and these are some of the more commonly occurring ones -

Consumption - Tuberculosis or TB
Dropsy - accumulation of fluid in any tissue (often a symptom of kidney failure or heart failure)
Fistula - connected with boils and carbuncles
Phthisis - Tuberculosis or TB
Marasmus - always of a small child - generalised failure to thrive
Wasting - as for marasmus
Apoplexy - stroke or cerebral haemorrhage
Syncope - usually associated with a heart problem
Dyspnoea - difficulty in breathing
Anasarcap - diffused dropsy in the skin
Scrofula - TB (usually of the lymphatic glands)
Climacteric - vague term meaning something unusually severe has happened, e.g. heart attack or stroke.

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7 - Informant's Details

This is the signature, description and residence of the informant and can be a highly useful part of a death certificate for genealogists.

The signature could be made by the informant if they could write their name or it could be a mark. A large " X" and the words "the mark of ............" will be familiar to you.

The description of the informant has varied with time. In the early days, the informant was one of the following
1. someone present at the death.
2. someone in attendance.
3. the occupier of a house.
4. the master or keeper of an institution.

The person present at the death or in attendance (which also meant they had been nursing the deceased or in close contact with them during their illness) was also usually a relative, but the early registrations don’t give the relationship of the informant to the deceased.

It’s always worth remembering with registrations before 1875 that an informant "present at the death", with a name you might not recognise, could be a married daughter that you have had no information on since she left home, or a granddaughter, grandson, son-in-law or any other relative likely to have a different surname from the deceased.

8 - Date of Registration

This is normally very close to the date of death - or even the day of the death itself. Even today only 5 days is allowed for a death registration, or 14 if a coroners post-mortem is required. An Inquest has no time limit.

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9 - Signature of the Registrar

This is often not a signature in modern certificates, but the typed making them easier to read. Earlier entries do contain a signature as the certificate was often handwritten.

10 - Register Number

This could be anything between 1 and 500 in the early registers. Remember that there were 5 entries to the page and they will all have the identical GRO reference. You might find two members of the same family with the same reference number in the same quarter - perhaps because 2 children have died of the same childhood disease, such as diphtheria, you could have a mother and new baby dying, or 2 members of the family dying together in an accident. Or it could be a coincidence!

11 - District

The registration district is the same as with birth certificates and shows the year of death.

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