Posted by Kathleen Cortez on October 31, 2013 in Family History Month, Research, Website


Searching for Death

Historically, death was a constant companion. The grim reaper lurked in the shadows waiting to claim his next victim. Our ancestors dealt with the prospect of an early death from many conditions, which are now easily mended. Many women died in childbirth. Accidents, disease, and plague claimed millions. Death and burial records can be a rich and sometimes gruesome source in genealogical research, and the rituals surrounding death and burial can provide clues. If you understand the rituals and customs of the time it can help in the research process.

Morgue at the Worsham School of Mortuary Science [Click to Enlarge]
Morgue at the Worsham School of Mortuary Science
[Click to Enlarge]
While pursuing death and burial records in research, keep in mind that the person who truly knew the information was in fact dead. Therefore death records are generally considered derivative or secondary sources so look upon them with a skeptical eye.

Vital records as we know them today largely came in to force in about 1906. There were many states that kept vital records prior to 1906, but the law on vital record creation was implemented in most states at about that time.

One source for early deaths on is the U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885. These were the record of deaths that occurred in the twelve months prior to the enumeration.

Slaves were not enumerated by name in the censuses prior to 1870, which was the first census after the end of the Civil War. However, many slave’s full names can be found in the 1850 and 1860 mortality schedules, aiding greatly in taking research over the notorious brick wall created by a lack of records for slaves prior to 1870.

In one search wherein the 1860 mortality schedule for Cobb County, Georgia was randomly selected, it can be seen that there are several slaves mentioned. Only those considered Black (B) or Mulatto (M) are mentioned in the “color” column. Of the 35 people listed on the first page, 10 were noted as Slaves (S) and two as Free (F), which is another great clue, if that fact was not known. All, except for the infants, were listed by full name and birthplace. Mary Earl (line 10) was noted as married, which technically was not possible for slaves in 1860, but must have been accepted as fact in her community. The Cobb County mortality schedule is only five pages, which also might indicate that Cobb County was not densely populated in 1860 given the low number of deaths recorded. This one page also demonstrates that some families had a few members die during the year. Unlike most standard death records, which are chronological, the mortality schedule was compiled at the time of the regular census enumeration, which allowed the family to disclose all who had died in the last year as one group. These little details add up to a big picture.

Clues about the life of a person can be found in the smallest details. When it comes to death and burial records it may be tempting to dismiss them, as these records are not a primary source and may not always have the parent’s names or what seem like informative facts designed to extend the family history. However, you may be able to note particulars such as a similar cause of death generation after generation by comparing several death records.

Eerie Ancestors

In the spirit of Halloween we will look at records for some famous ghosts and follow the trail of some of our haunting forebears.

Dolley Madison  [Click to Enlarge]
Dolley Madison
[Click to Enlarge]
Dolley Madison is famous for the creation of the White House rose garden. When the second Mrs. Woodrow Wilson ordered workers to dig up the famous roses they were scolded by the ghost of Dolley Madison and not a plant was disturbed by those who witnessed the specter. If anyone wished to visit the grave of Dolley Madison they could locate her current burial place on Find A Grave.

One famous New Orleans ghost is the spirit of Marie LeVeau, Queen of the VooDoo. She was feared and revered by all who knew her, and now haunts the streets of St. Louis cemetery where she is buried. Marie was born to a free Creole woman and a white plantation owner, and died in New Orleans in 1881 at the age of 98. Her second husband with whom she supposedly had 15 children in 15 years was Christophe Glapion.

The index entry to her death record can be found as Marie Glapion Lavau. This entry allows the New Orleans death record to be ordered via VitalChek in a few easy steps. Note the misspelled maiden name and the placement of the married name. If the married name before the maiden name was a custom in New Orleans or Louisiana or amongst Creoles it might make it difficult to find the record if there was a local convention for naming practices unknown to the researcher. Check every possible spelling variation and name order arrangement for better success.

The morbid fact of life is that we all must die. The records created around a death and burial can go beyond the usual death certificate or entry in a parish register. Obituaries, funeral records, and probates are a few of the other sources that can aid in the research process.

Just watch out for the ghosts of ancestors past as you prowl through death and burial records.


Kathleen Cortez

Kathy Cortez, MA (Psychology) is the Team Lead for the United Kingdom and Ireland research team at ProGenealogists. Genealogy has been an important part of her life since childhood. In addition to working on her own genealogy for the last 25 years and working for clients full-time since 2004, she also focused on genealogy in her psychology program. For seven years Kathy maintained an independent genealogy business specializing in long-term projects. She is a member of many genealogical organizations including: the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the National Genealogical Society (NGS), New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and several locality based societies. Kathy has been a speaker at genealogy conferences including the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS), where she was the APG 25th Anniversary featured speaker. Her genealogical activities include active participation in local societies. She spent three years as president of the Marin County Genealogical Society in Marin County, California. Read more at

1 Comment

  1. Ann Thompson

    I have made lots of calls and looked in lots of places for Charles Robert Butler and wife, Haiite for there birth and or death Cert. but have had much luck as of yet. I know Charles Robert Butler in on the Native Amercian Roll but thats about all I know of his past, I can’t even find whe right parents for him. ANd Hattie I found her madden name on therie daughters death Cert. and its spelled Dennon on it, can you find it in your heart to tell me what to do in this matter. I would love to find more but have run in to dead ends.
    Thank you for any information you can help me with.

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