You need to evaluate the details that you find on a death certificate because even original records can have incorrect information. Not all the information provided on a death certificate occurred at the time the record was generated making the possibility for errors even greater. So how do you go about analyzing the data? Some tips to do this are included below.
“A piece of information is primary when it is recorded by a knowledgeable eyewitness or participant in that event, or by an ofﬁcial whose duties require him or her to make an accurate record of the event when it occurs.” See “Skillbuilding: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Records.”
Take a look at the death certificate for George Anderson Tucker. The following details would be primary information:
Place of death: Columbia, South Carolina
Name: George A. Tucker
Marital status: Married
Wife: Daisy Tucker
Informant: E. W. Vance
Burial: Union County, SC, 12/13/1932
Undertaker: Manigault Funeral Home
Date of Death: 12/11/32
Cause of death: Pulmonary Tuberculosis
In this case, the informant, E. W. Vance, is the son-in-law of George. The more closely related the informant is to the decedent, the more reliable the information, although, you should make an effort to find other resources to verify the information given. Unfortunately, like many death certificates, the name of the cemetery has not been provided. That can be a huge disappointment if the funeral home is no longer in business. When this happens, consult your family to ask about known burial sites in the area. Consult newspaper obituaries, and take a trip to the church cemetery. In this case, the burials sites for George’s wife and children were researched. Most were found to be buried in Maple Ridge Baptist Church Cemetery where the family attended church in Union County. Later, descendants who still attend the church confirmed that George was buried there also.
Often an historical record contains both primary and secondary information. Some of the information given by the informant would be classified as secondary because he was not present when events such as when George’s birth took place. For example, the full name of George’s father was not given, and the informant did not give the maiden name for his mother.
Secondary information is supplied by someone who was not at the event and may include errors caused by memory loss or inﬂuenced by other parties who may have a bias or be under emotional stress. See “Skillbuilding: Guidelines for Evaluating Genealogical Records.”
You may have relied heavily on clues on a death certificate to determine the names of your ancestor’s parent’s and birthplace. Be careful accepting this information on a death certificate as factual without any other documentation. If the names or birthplaces given are incorrect, you may find yourself on a wild goose chase.
It was necessary to refer to other records to determine the full names of George’s parents. Fortunately some of the children of George were alive to confirm these findings when the research was first being conducted. Records that can verify secondary information such as parent’s names on a death certificate include:
- birth records
- marriage records
- death records
- military records
Before you etch any details you discover on records into the annals of history, be sure to provide your analysis of the accuracy of the information and other forms of proof.