Difficulties in Finding a Death Certificate

The absence of a date of death is a frequent feature of many family trees.  To me the date of demise of a relative completes the story of an individual and shows you have attempted to trace their whole life.  It can also throw up some information that you will not find elsewhere relating to their life and your family.

As with birth and marriage certificates the system has been in place since 1st July 1837.  One difference is that a death must be registered within five days of the date of death, unless a coroner is involved.  It is believed that the system of registering deaths is virtually 100% from its inception, with a few doubts regarding completeness in the first ten years, according to the Office of National Statistics.

The problem of finding the correct entry often occurs with more recent records.  At present we have the census of 1911 our nearest reference point.  In theory without other knowledge an individual alive at that time, aged say twenty, could have died at any point in the next eighty years or more!   Hopefully if you tracked down all your living relatives at the commencement of your researches someone in the family will have had vague recollections of attending the funeral or where the wake took place!

The certificate shows the following information:

  • Registration district; date & place of death; name, age, sex & occupation of the deceased; the cause; signature, name & address of informant, (invariably a relative or close neighbour); date of registration.  Inaccuracies can take place:
  • Registration district – Many people die away from home – this could mislead the researcher.  Until 1929 registrars were paid on commission, was there anything to prevent their zeal in wandering across district boundaries? 
  • Place of death – Even the local hospital could be in a different district, or perhaps working away from home or visiting relatives.
  • Name, sex & occupation – Only as good as the informant’s knowledge.  Even family members can be unsure of an older relative’s age.

The GRO indexes contain age of death from 1866. This is helpful with the more frequent names.   Also from that date only one forename is shown, second forenames are shown by letter only.  

In the case of a common surname or a name common to an area, if an approximate date is known it is sometimes easier to search for a burial or cremation first.  Take into account cremations started in the late nineteenth century and by 1968 had overtaken burials.  Nowadays burials represent less than 25%.  Burial and cremation records are held by local authorities.  Make sure you check both as they are held in separate registers.

Usually the first indication that an ancestor may have died arises when they appear in one census but not in the next. 

  • It could be that they have moved away, so by widening your search parameters you may find them.
  •  In the case of a female they could have course married or remarried. 
  • There also the possibility the original has been misread, some of my Kinch ancestors appear as Finch in one transcription.  Try changing the spelling.  Another way is to search by place and paging through the whole piece number.

Probate is another source, even those with little to leave often left a will.  Internet sources are complete for post 1858 wills (depending on the provider) but I doubt any provider has covered all earlier wills. 

  • Check the places covered with the service you are using.
  • Post 1858 wills can also be sourced at your local probate registry.
  • For earlier wills check what is available at the local Record Office.

Gravestones are another source, bearing in mind, only a relatively small percentages of graves have headstones.  Many memorials record more than one generation.  Once again there can be discrepancies in the ages and dates due to the knowledge of the informants.  Check with the family history society in the area to see what they have transcribed.

Local newspapers always feature obituaries.  Some of these are not necessarily local celebrities but those who have achieved some status within the community, for example tradesmen and shopkeepers.  They also report on hatched, matched and despatched but it can be a long slog to find the entry you want.  Many local publications have still to appear in British Newspapers Online.   Local libraries often hold a good run of the local titles.  Indexing of the obituaries and public notices is an area hardly touched by family history societies, perhaps we should correct this?

Online sources for civil registration:

1       General Register Office: www.gro.gov.uk



2       District Registrars: As GRO above and www.ukbmd.org.uk

3       Free Indexes: www.freebmd.org.uk

4       Plus all the online genealogical sources.