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Oct 03, 2017

African American Genealogy: How to Document a Death

Headstones in Cemetery

Headstones in Cemetery


One of the most common events that beginning researchers attempt to document is an ancestor’s death. Most become familiar right away with death certificates, but when there are challenges finding or accessing a death certificate, it is helpful to know about additional records. It is a good practice to search these additional records in case there are errors or incomplete information on the death certificate.  Ways to document a death which we discuss below are:

  • death certificate
  • Social Security Death records
  • newspaper obituary
  • cemetery

Death Certificate or Index

If your ancestor passed away during the time deaths were officially recorded in the state where he or she lived, you should look for a death certificate. Many collections of death certificates are online. Visit the article, How to Find United States Death Records, and select the state where you ancestor passed away. Choose the time period when the death occurred. 

You will find different types of resources to help you locate a death record. If the record is online, you will find links to search that specific collection. Sometimes only the index is available which you can use to obtain a copy of the original record through the vital records office in that particular state.

Many people are fortunate to discover the names of an ancestor’s parents and birthplace from a death certificate.  Also, the name of the person’s mother is often mentioned. This can help you as you use census records to track your family line back in time or as you trace them forward to locate extended family.

Social Security Death Records

If you know where your ancestor died but you are not sure when, search the Social Security Death Index online.  It “is a master index file of deceased individuals whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration. It has been kept since 1962, when operations were computerized. The index includes a few deaths from 1937 to 1961, about 50 percent of deceased persons from 1962 to 1971, and about 85 percent of deceased persons from 1972 to 2005. Records for the most recent 3 years are not available.” See Social Security Death Index to learn how to use the information that you discover from this collection.

The U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 provides a little more information than the Social Security Death Index. It provides information that was given during the process of applying for Social Security or making a claim:

  • Social Security Number (SSN)
  • applicant’s full name
  • date and place of birth
  • citizenship
  • sex
  • father’s name
  • mother’s maiden name
  • race/ethnic description (optional)

Newspaper Obituary

The most popular resource accessed through newspapers for genealogy are obituaries. An obituary often provides much more information than a death certificate. A vast array of historical newspapers are available online through subscription and non-subscription sites. It is important to research the holdings of a subscription site so that you do not purchase a subscription and discover they do not carry the newspaper you need access to (time period and locality).

The newspaper you need access to may not be available online. In that case, you should contact the local library in the area where you ancestor lived to find out if they have local newspapers on microfilm. You may discover that the library has an obituary index where you can search for an index of the obituary before you request a copy of the original. Check the library’s website for other genealogy resources or collections.


Another resource that you can use to learn more about your ancestor’s death is the cemetery.  You may have discovered the name of the cemetery where you ancestor was buried from a death certificate or obituary. If not, Find A Grave is a popular place people go to search for cemeteries in a specific area.

Widen your search by researching the people buried in the cemetery who have the same surname as your ancestor. Be sure to look closely at the people who are buried in the same plot or location as your ancestor. Compare death records and census records to see if there are any connections to these individuals that you have not already noticed.

Sharpen the Saw

Use one of the following ways to document a death:

  • Death Certificate
  • Social Security
  • Cemetery
  • Obituary

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