Death certificates often look abstract and removed from the real world. Originally just a piece of paper completed by a clerk, filed away, and later used to compile health and other statistics. Just ink on a piece of paper that conveys a brief summary of a person’s life and slightly more details about the end of it. The paper copy or digital image the family historian receives of that record removes them from the situation just as time and geography often do as well.

As I’ve gotten older and have had more people close to me die, the information contained in the death certificate has become more than just text to enter into a genealogical database or an image to attach to someone’s file. Everyone dies. The death certificate indicating an eighty-five year old died of “old age” seem to be a befitting summary of the end. It’s the others that sometimes give me cause to reflect and realize that these records are but a stark summary of the underlying situation during which they were created.

The reality of that became even more clear to me when I located a death certificate for a relative who died in Montana in 1940s. She had intentionally jumped off a bridge into the river below. She drowned. The death certificate was signed by her son. The record is mostly typed except for two key portions: the cause of death and the name of the informant. A doctor has hastily scrawled the details of how she died, but there’s not suggestion of what brought her to that bridge. There’s a spot for “signature of informant” with an “x” indicating where the son was to sign. For some reason the fact that he actually signed the certificate just made the whole situation all the more sad.

It’s hard to tell what he was thinking when he signed it. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But it is easy to imagine how he might have felt.

So I now take a little more time than I used to when I review a death record and pause at the cause of death and think about the informant. There’s more to genealogical research than simply seeing how fast we can collect data and enter it into a database.

Sometimes it’s good to think a little about the people mentioned in the records and how the events that were recorded might have impacted their lives.

That can impact our own life a little as well.

And after all, if genealogy can’t impact us in some way, why are we really doing it?

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  1. My mother’s original death certificate indicated that she had dementia, because she didn’t respond to the nursing home’s dr within 48 hours upon admission. But of course they thought that, since she wasn’t wearing her hearing aides or had her glasses on & she was very sleepy most of the time!!
    I got it amended based on heart disease, severe loss of kidney function & old age, since I had cared for her at home for nearly 3 years previously. Now I feel that as the family genealogist, it is more accurate.

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