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Oct 09, 2017

African American Genealogy: More Ways to Document a Death

Headstone App Military Veterans
Headstone App Military Veterans U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Applications for Headstones for U.S. Military Veterans, 1925-1941.Microfilm publication M1916, 134 rolls. ARC ID: 596118. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, Record Group 92. National Archives at Washington, D.C.Applications for Headstones, compiled 01/01/1925 – 06/30/1970, documenting the period ca. 1776 – 1970 ARC: 596118. Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985, Record Group 92. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

In How to Document a Death, we shared a few of the most common resources for learning more about your ancestor’s death. The death event generated many different ways to learn more about a person. Even if a person is not present in a record where they were mentioned consecutively in the past, that can become a clue to the possible date of death. You will learn the most by making it a point of including a few more record types in your search:

Probate Records

If your ancestor owned property or other possessions at the time of his or her death, a record of how those items were distributed was made by the county or parish court system even if no will existed.  Many descendants do not believe ancestors left anything behind, so they do not even feel it worth the effort to check the indexes for a probate record. Even if you do not have knowledge that your ancestor owned property, you should check probate records to make sure. If you ancestor was formerly enslaved, he or she may appear in the probate record or will of the former slaveholder although it may not be apparent on an index.

Check the local courthouse to see if your ancestor or person who formerly enslaved him is listed on an index of wills or probate records. Sometimes these records may have been moved to the state archives. Online probate records are available at and  A few types of probate records that you may come across include:

  • estate inventories
  • wills
  • guardianships
  • administrations


One way to find access to probate records is from this article: United States Probate Records. See the section entitled: Probate by State. Select the state where your ancestor died. You will discover where records are held for that particular state. Also, search the FamilySearch Wiki for the parish or county (ex. Georgetown County, South Carolina) you are researching. Each parish and county article will provide information and resources for researching probate records.

Funeral Home Records

Most death certificates provide the name of the funeral home or funeral director.  If you are fortunate enough that your ancestor died during the time deaths were officially recorded and the funeral home’s name is provided, contact them to see if they have a file on your ancestor.  Be respectful of their time, and do not be surprised if they would rather have you come in to search through records personally.

You may learn more about your ancestor from a funeral home record. Some things you may learn include:

  • who paid for the funeral
  • an obituary or death certificate may be included in your ancestor’s file
  • your ancestor’s parents, spouse, siblings or other relatives
  • your ancestor’s birthplace, burial place, etc.
  • your ancestor’s military service, or other occupation

If the funeral home no longer exists, contact an existing funeral home to find out what they know and who received stewardship of the records. Also, ask the local genealogical society or reference librarians to see what they know about that particular funeral home.

Ancestor is Missing on Records

As you are searching the census, you will notice that people are listed in earlier censuses that disappear from records in later years. Women marry and stop using their maiden names. Family members move away. Another possibility for not locating a death record could be that the person passed away between census years. When you have no idea when a person died, you can pinpoint an approximate death using the census and records generated in between those years like city directories.

Use a combination of several records to locate the person. If you do not see them, begin to check the records we have been discussing to locate a death date. Also, keep in mind that spelling errors and name changes can make it difficult to find records. It does not necessarily mean the person died when you cannot find them.  If you have been primarily using an online database in your search, try browsing an existing index where you can physically see everyone listed on the record in a particular area.  Remember that sometimes ancestors traveled to nearby cities looking for medical attention. If they died in that locality, look for their death record there.

U.S. Headstone Applications for Military Veterans

If your ancestor served in the military, you should search the U. S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans.  We have on occasion discovered the headstone application of military personnel before finding any other record documenting their death. “This database contains application forms for headstones for deceased members and veterans of the U.S. armed services. Applications were made between 1925 and 1963, but they include veterans in conflicts going back to the Revolutionary War.”

The Application for Headstone Marker for Sheppard A. Anderson of Charleston, South Carolina included above gives you an idea of the type of information that you may find on a application.  In addition to the basic death information, the application gives the name and address of the person who applied for the application. Many times this is a child or spouse of the deceased member or veteran of the armed service.

Of great importance is the cemetery. Knowing the cemetery, you can research your ancestor, and other members of the family that are buried there. 

Sharpen the Saw

Now that we have discussed different types of records for documenting deaths, you have more than one or two resources to discover further details about your ancestor.  Make a list of the record types we suggested in this and the last post. Look for an ancestor using these different records. Remember that we are here if you need help accessing records. Just let us know in the Facebook research group and we will be happy to help! Compare the different information on each record. Let us know if you learned anything new about your ancestor on the Facebook post for this article. We cannot wait to hear from you!