Why You Can’t Find a Death Record (and Some Things That Might Help)

Your ancestor’s death record is one of those things that you’re supposed to have. Let’s face it — death is one event that is certain to take place at some point. Plus, death records are usually filled with all sorts of genealogical goodness. But sometimes there’s that ancestor who just doesn’t cooperate. You’ve looked and looked, but the record cannot be found. Why can’t you find that death record? Here are some possible reasons, plus some things you can do about it.

1. The Area Didn’t Keep Death Records When Your Ancestor Died

Not every place started keeping civil death records at the same time. Vermont started keeping civil vital records (including deaths) around 1760. Ohio didn’t start until 1867. Indiana began in 1882.

While there’s nothing you can do about a record that was never created, there are some workarounds. Think about why you wanted the record and consider some substitutes.

2. He Didn’t Die Where You Think He Did

Ancestors can be so inconsiderate sometimes. Even though he lived in a certain place his entire life, that doesn’t mean that’s where he died. Ask yourself, “Have I confirmed where he died?”

Rev. Naham Hines, Maple Grove Cemetery, Licking County, Ohio
Rev. Naham Hines, Maple Grove Cemetery, Licking County, Ohio

There are other sources that can give the place of death. Obituaries are a great source for this. If you know where he’s buried, look at the cemetery records and even his tombstone. Naham Hines is buried in Licking County, Ohio, but according to his tombstone, he died in Brooklyn, New York. That would explain why you can’t find a death record for him in Ohio.

If your ancestor was in the military, especially in the Civil War or later, take a look at his pension. There is often a statement about where he died.

If all else fails, start tracing his children. He may have moved to be with one of them or was visiting when he died.

3. She’s Using a Different Name

Researching female ancestors can be challenging since their surnames change at each marriage. That’s hard enough, but what I’m talking about is that she might not be listed with her first name. Instead, her death record might be listed as “Mrs. John Smith,” rather than as Mary Smith. Try searching using his first name instead of hers.

4. He’s Using Initials

For some reason, there are men who seem to keep using their initials rather than their full names. This can trip us up when we do an online search. While some databases will match “W. H. Skinner” if you search for “William Henry Skinner,” many (I’d say most) will not. Try searching with his initials (first initial only and again adding his middle initial) instead of his full name.

5. He’s Using a Nickname or a Middle Name

Names are more fluid than we generally think. Though your ancestor might have been names William Henry Skinner, he might show up in the record as Henry Skinner. Search with his middle name instead of his “real” first name.

Nicknames are troublesome, especially for women. While Williams generally aren’t listed as “Bill” on their death records (though it does happen sometimes), it isn’t unusual at all for women to be listed with a nickname or a diminutive form of their name. Search for Molly or Polly for Mary; Patsy for Martha; or Peggy for Margaret. (USGenWeb has a handy guide for nicknames.)

Don’t let those ancestors keep hiding from you. If you’re not finding their death record, consider some of these strategies to discover them. How have you uncovered some hard-to-find death records?



Posted: August 5, 2015.

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  • Thanks very much for these tips. I needed to read this today as I am swimming in a sea of past relatives who names as I have them do not match up to their death records.

  • Wonderful information! I ran in to an ancestor who went by the nickname Chas, which is normally short for Charles. His real name was Gard! Nicknames can be quite confusing 🙂

  • If you’re searching online, beware of the transcriber who wasn’t familiar with names in the area! They can make hash out of many immigrant’s names. Sometimes all you can do is scroll through the listings for the death year and check anything that looks odd.

    • That’s a great point. Not only do we have the challenge of unfamiliar names, but when the writing is bad to begin with. Whoever said that people used to always have good handwriting has obviously never read some of the documents we’ve had to use!

  • I have been searching my BOLTON ancestors with no luck I am a full member of ancestry.co.uk and cannot get any info on any of them even though I have birth dates and marriages where do I go from here ?

    • Sounds like it’s time to assess exactly what you have. The best way I know to do that is to make a timeline and see where the gaps are (including things I *think* I know, but don’t have good documentation for). Then, explore what resources are available to fill those gaps. It might be an online database, a collection of digitized images, or something offline at a library or archive. Take it slow and steady — it really does win the race!

  • Also he may not have died when you think he did. Don’t rely on a gravestone and only search that particular year for a death record. Death notices in the newspaper might be a better source of the date of death. For instance a gravestone says an ancestor died in 1888, yet there is a newspaper death notice in 1887.

    • Excellent point! Plus, if you’re looking at a cemetery transcription, the person reading the tombstone might have read it wrong. (Or you might have read it wrong if you saw the tombstone.) 1s, 4s, and 7s are easily confused, as are 3s, 6s, 8s, and 0s.

      • A good point! I spent years looking for my great aunt’s death. My grandmother, her sister, had always implied that she died as a young woman in the early 1920s. Eventually I cast my net wider and wider, and the record of her death – in 1975!!

  • My g g grandmother remarried in old age BUT is buried under first husband’s name. So I had looked for her FAG under her last name of last husband and couldn’t find it and found her FAG with her children of first marriage.

    Also, I have found married ladies’ FAG using for their middle initial (having dropped their middle name or not using it) the beginning letter of maiden name.

    • So true, Becky! We need to think about all of the variations on how a woman might use her various names.

  • wonderful artaical. i am going to use it in my beginner class .i always thought my g g grandfather died in NYC but took a chance and looked in new jersey and there he was.

  • My GG grandparents came here in 1889. Julianna and Joh. Paliwoda with 8 month Theophil. Joh died within a year of arriving and Julianna re-married in 1890. I cannot find anything on Joh. She re-married in Cook County, Il. Can you help?

    • In case you never found your Poliwodas, the newspaper Inter Ocean in Chicago shows in March of 1890 Julia filed for divorce from John, for cruelty and desertion, atty Willard C Smith, divorce action 79.906.

    • Chicago Inter-Ocean, March 12 1890
      Circuit Court
      New Suits
      79,906 Julia Paliwoda vs John Paliwoda. Bill for divorce for desertion and cruelty. Willard C. Smith, atty.

      Divorce listed as granted in the Inter Ocean of May 8, 1890.
      No further Paliwoda references in the newspaper.

  • Been at this research thing for just over 5 yrs (still learning how tos) and every point you made is right on. I might add two things for consideration, the possibility of errors in spelling and/or transcription of name on record indexes, even the changing of the spelling of a surname over time. My own methods of research always include expanding of all family members were possible thus locating an elderly widowed parent on census records listed with a married child, grand child and on occasion a niece or nephew. To me these records of death and burial site location are the final step required to verify my research. Without this, there is always a question.

  • Just to expand on your final point about nicknames (I’ll keep using the Bill/William example): if all you know is “Bill” don’t assume that his name really was William. Lots of people are given the shorter version at birth (my ex-wife’s uncle was Dan, not Daniel, and his father had quite an argument with some agency over it at some point, telling them that he should know what he named his own son!).

    Oops, going back up it appears I double-clicked the Page Down key and missed a similar comment. But building on that particular comment:

    Watch out, too, for abbreviated names in indexes. When indexing we’re told to put in EXACTLY what is on an original document, even if we know what it really means (and Chas vs. Charles is an excellent example). If you know for sure that your ancestor was named William, don’t forget to look for Wm, as well.

    • Great point, Dave! There are a few in my family who have “nicknames” as their “real” names — one is a Tom who is actually a Tommy, not a Thomas.

  • Thank you for the tip on middle names. I just found another variation on that and did not understand why at first – a census record for William Henry Skinner (to use your example) where he was listed as William with surname Henry and the whole family also had surname Henry.

  • Nice article Amy! I had a female ancestor Who gave me fits trying to understand what her real name was. She was listed as Sally in a census and Suzy in another. Her marriage listed as Ellen! Her obituary name her as a Mrs and finally death certificate and headstone listed her as Ellen Susan…..I have assumed her nickname was Sally.

    • You bring up a good point, Jonathan. While statewide registration wasn’t required until 1857, many towns kept vital records much earlier than that, including some towns that kept them as early as 1760. The FamilySearch Wiki has a good page about Vermont vital records.

      It kind of like something that makes me cringe with Ohio research. I’ll often see references to birth and death records starting in 1908. That’s when the state required a copy to be sent to them. However, county probate courts had been required to keep them locally beginning in 1867.

  • When I started to research, I found that spelling of the some name were
    change later on in life. and census worker would spell name wrong on the census.

  • Thanks for this. I have a problem with a relative that was declared a lunatic and his grave was not marked as his family could not understand diabetis and I think it couses a lot of pain so they just hide everything about him.

  • I enjoyed reading all this – thank you. A case in point in my own family – all the sons had a nickname (not the daughters) and dad’s official first names were Frank Hamilton – nick name Bill!!

  • Thank you for the posts; this one hit at the right time for me, as there is a father and son in my ancestry who shared the same first name as well as the same nickname; I learned the hard way to look at the dates and locations and compare where they were to the various westward movements of people yearning for greener pastures.

  • I have a goup of families that lived in Ohio in the late 1800s that seemed to use first and middle names interchangeably all the time. Census records, birth and death…all different. Birth record of Charley Reed Shirey, but later known as Reed, and gravestone says Charles Reed. Gets so you don’t really know what their real official name was at all.
    I have also found that the “original” handwritten records in courthouses (some, anyway) are transcriptions taken from somewhere else, so these official records are rife with misspellings. Shirey is frequently misspelled as Shirley, Shirely, Shire, etc. First names can be totally wrong: Elmer instead of Edwin, Julia instead of Carrie.
    Last names of recent immigrants often get ‘Americanized’. I have been transcribing a Civil War Journal of James B Lockney. His Irish family immigrated to Wisconsin around 1848. Their name was Loughney. His was changed during the war. The rest of the family continued with the original and his descendants used the new American spelling.
    Don’t forget to use newspapers as a source. I had a great grandfather who was accidentally shot in a different part of the state from where he lived and then died there. Newspaper pegged his death place, date, and reason. Yet I find no death record for him with the county or state. Beware, that the news in the 1800s were often written in gruesome detail. I had a relative child who accidentally shot his head off climbing a fence while hunting. The account for this sounded straight out of the National Enquirer. Awful and brought me to tears…..

    • Thanks for stopping by, Jim! Isn’t it amazing how fluid our ancestors’ names were? I have a couple of ancestors like the one you describe — they seem to change what they preferred to be called at the drop of a hat.

  • Amy, I’d like to add my thanks, too, for your many excellent articles. I edit the “Genealogical Tips” quarterly for the Tip O’Texas Genealogical Society and have passed along a number of them (with attribution to you) to our members and exchange societies. There are always new ideas and reminders about things we have forgotten. We all need all the help we can get. This article will go in out next issue.

  • Amy, I noticed you have used the name William Henry Skinner a couple of times. A William Henry Skinner was my GGrandfather. He was married to a Josephine Black and lived in eastern Ohio. I would love to get additional information on him and Josephine but have had difficulty because, as I understand, one or both were Native Indian, I do not know which tribe, or even if this is true.

    I really enjoy your information.

    • Hi, Diana! I descend from William (Henry) Harrison Skinner, born 1809 (probably in Ohio), died 30 May 1850 in Perry County, Ohio. He was the son of Robert and Elizabeth (Spencer) Skinner. Any connection?

      Glad you enjoy the blog!

  • another reason is that an ancestor may have emigrated to another country and stayed there. Or even Armed forces records abroad may hide something.

  • I’d just like to encourage everyone to keep trying. With help from a local librarian, I was able to learn some neat things about my great great grandmother last week. She died of typhoid fever (not cancer, as was believed) and the “remarks” section of the death record said “Truly a pious woman.” But when I went to visit her gravesite, the cemetery couldn’t locate her, at first. I showed them the FAG picture, and they found enough clues to help locate her. In their books, her name was spelled incorrectly. I am so thankful these ladies in Mansfield, Ohio were willing to go the second mile to help me! One even walked the section of the cemetery where she was located with me, until we found her.

  • Hi Amy,
    Not sure if this site is still active or not. But I have a question for you. Do you have any idea how to locate a death certificate for a relative who died in 1961 in New York but did not have a social security number?

  • At least your vital records started early! Half of my ancestors are from South Carolina. They didn’t start keeping ANY vital records, even at a county level, until 1911, marriage. Then about 1915 for births and deaths. This means I have to discover church records, if they exist. The other half are mostly from North Carolina, so they kept marriage records at a county level in the 1800s, which I am immensely grateful for, because then I can identify the church based on the minister.

  • Wonderful article. Thanks! You might be interested in a special “find” in my husband’s family archives. I have been unable to find any records for his great-great grandmother’s first husband. But one day, while going through some items passed on down through the ages, I spotted a receipt, made out to the lady, in 1878 or so. She bought a coffin. 🙂

  • Another good one is that they just didn’t have a death record or for some reason it was not filed. I have one in Ohio in 1927 that I cannot find. He died in Fairfield County, I have an obituary that was published the day he died and also the cemetery record to confirm the date of death. But no record located, either on FamilySearch or Ancestry. Yet.

    • Sometimes when the indices didn’t find a relative’s death in Ohio (some of the handwriting was terrible), I’ve had luck searching through the UNindexed Ohio death records (1908-1953) on FamilySearch.org.

      It looks like 1927 deaths were microfilmed on 25 reels. The certificates are ordered by year, then month, then county–and counties continue from one reel to the next. Fairfield won’t have toooo many deaths in 1927, so you might have to page through 20-50? certificates if you’re certain of the month. Occasionally I’ve found a number of misplaced ones at the end of the year’s other certificates. Also, I’ve found that some of my relatives died in a hospital outside the county, even though the obituary said otherwise.

  • I found the death record for my husband’s GGGrandmother (Mary Ann Rhodes, widow of Robert Bramhall) by ordering Civil War pension papers for ALL of her 4 sons. The Papers of the very last one, the unmarried son who died in the war, answered the decades long question. She applied for a mother’s pension, which revealed she had remarried! After learning her name (Wise) all records started falling into line. It was learned she had had another child, again widowed soon after, but continued to raise his and her families until adulthood. After passing the farm back to one of the Wise sons, she moved back to her hometown where her own children had settled, and where she and her youngest daughter made a living as weavers. Her grave is in the Carlisle, Ohio cemetery under a heart shaped stone on which is engraved “Mary Ann Wise”.

  • Thank you, Amy! Those are great tips! My problem is different, however. My grandfather has a death certificate, I can order it from California for a pretty hefty sum, and pay an even heftier some for shipping said piece of paper for some reason, when all I really need is a copy.
    My Aunt is the evil gatekeeper of the original and is not parting with a scanned copy for some reason only known to her.
    I was hoping to find an answer as to why SOME death certificates can be found online and some can’t, even if they are just regular ol’ death certificates. I’m betting she cast a spell.

    • Different jurisdictions make their own decisions. Some are fine with older records being digitized and put online; others see it as a cut into their revenue.

      One thing to try would be to contact the vital records office in the county where he died. They might not be as expensive as ordering from the state viral statistics office.

  • Here’s another twist on this topic. Thirty or forty years ago, the township where my aunt and uncle lived all their lives offered free burial plots in the local cemetery. The only requirement was to have a grave marker placed within a year. My aunt and uncle did so, among our many already deceased ancestors. In 2006, they moved to another part of the state so their adult children could help in their care. When they passed, they were buried just down the road from where their adult children live. So there are two gravestones in the same state for my aunt and uncle! I’m sure this is not unique, just not widely known.

  • Great reminders, thank you, Amy! There’s also that they didn’t die WHEN you think they did. I spent a long time looking for my great aunt. I had always believed that she died in about 1920 in her early 20s, because that’s what my grandmother, her sister, implied (I would say that’s what she SAID, but maybe I’m wrong, because I never thought to question it.) Eventually, having I cast the net wider and wider, I found her death record – in 1974, in a psychiatric hospital.

  • I have found death records in land record Affidavits. When looking at grantor-grantee or numerical indices I always read pertinent Affidavits.

  • Sometimes when I’ve been stuck…usually about a relative who moved away from the rest…I’ve had luck by stubbornly tracking down the obituaries of as many of the spouses, siblings, parents, even cousins and children as I could. If the missing soul was mentioned as a survivor in 1957 but not in 1964 or later, and especially if it named his town or state, it helped me narrow down when and where I needed to look. It has led to success, although it’s a slog.

  • Thanks for the ideas. I have a relative who loved to get married, but not divorced and has at least one alias! I may never find his record!!

  • Also, there was a period of time where death records for married women were listed as just Mrs., e.g. Mrs. Smith. Search for this also and confirm/verify/match supplied information on record to determine of an ancestor. Found this to be true for several of my ancestors.

  • Ancestry gave me an 1830 census record as a clue for a g-grandmother. When I looked at it, I found two male relatives and her husband misspelled. Nevertheless, the numbers confirmed it was her family. Thanks for your suggestions!

  • I live in northern California, and there is a grave out in the wilderness here, from the 1800’s, with a wooden headstone, which is barely legible at this point. I discovered it in 1970, when I was 11, and have been curious about it ever since. I’d asked all the old-timers about it, and some of them in the area knew it was there, but no one knew anything about the person, Wm. D. Miller. After the invention of the internet, I’ve been able to track down that he was a rancher from Humboldt county, and died when he was visiting down here for some reason. He’s buried in Albion. He had a brother east of here in Ukiah, that was a stage coach driver. For more information and photos:

  • 6. Death occurred outside of dates of available digital or public records.

    I have a great grand aunt who died in the 1980s. I have an unsourced family tree someone did that says she died at Topeka and the date of death. But I have never been able to verify any of it. I can’t even find where she is buried. Newspapers that recent are not available online for the area. And Kansas is so stingy about making records available unless you are a close relative. I might do better if I could make a trip there, but I’m not confident of that.

  • Pennsylvania did not begin civil vital records until 1906! Have been trying to trace the death records of a gt gm who family stories say died because she was struck by a train in Northampton county, Pa. Her surname has over 15 variations. Since her children were put in anorphanage in 1909 we figured she must have died between 1905 ( birth of last known child) and 1909. We tird all sorts with no luck. Then we posted on a geealogy message board. Hey presto! A local Penn woman found a newspaper account of a woman with matching details who had been killed by train in July 1908 , leaving 3 young children. This newspaper account has given new search options to try and YES we got her Pa. deth certificate.