The information on a death certificate is a rich terrain for genealogists, but a tricky one. We cannot take all of its information as accurate without examining more information from other sources.
Only the date and cause of death on a death certificate, usually verified by the attending medical professional, has a high probability of accuracy.
The Informant is Key
However, the family information provided and the birth date is only as good as the person who provided it. Thus you need to notice who the informant is on the document.
It is often a spouse or child, but could also be an unrelated neighbor or friend. It could also be hospital records. Even worse, that box could be blank.
The death information is considered primary information, since it is usually recorded shortly after the actual event by a person who witnessed the occurrence.
On the other hand, the birth date and the names (and birthplaces) of the parents of the deceased is usually secondary information.
The person providing that information was likely not present at the time of birth of the deceased. They may not have firsthand knowledge of who the parents were.
Obvious exceptions to this would be a mother or father who is the informant for the death of their child.
John Smith’s Birth date: Initial Sources
An example is instructive here. John Smith’s 1960 death certificate, which heads this posts, provides a birth date of 22 June 22 1890. The informant was John’s son William.
Would you take that date and put it in your trusty genealogy program as fact? Is that date accurate?
The answer is we have no idea if its accurate.
Not until we assess other sources that address John’s birth date. We then need to take those sources and correlate what information agrees and contrast what information does not agree.
During his lifetime, several sources speak to John’s birth date. He appears on four census records. I also have his World War I draft registration and Social Security Application (SS5).
That’s six other sources. Each of these sources has its own strengths and weaknesses. All of these are original sources, and not derivative sources.
John’s birth date in census records is as follows:
1900: 22 (b. 1878) [he was not found in 1910 or 1920]
1930: 45 (b. 1885)
1935: 55 (b. 1880) [a state census]
1940: 59 (b. 1881)
Although they are helpful, census records are notoriously error-prone. We also have no idea who provided the information (except for the 1940 census).
Two other sources for John’s birth are stronger sources for Johns birth date. Both the World War I draft registration and the original Social Security Application (SS5) contain primary information for John’s birth date.
The clerk filling out the form was getting the information directly from the individual.
(In this case, John was not literate as indicated by his mark, so someone else was filling out both forms.)
John’s Word War I draft card records a birth date of 27 June 1880:
John’s SS5 records a birth date of 22 June 1880:
What’s His Birth Date?
What we know for sure after evaluating all the relevant evidence is that John was probably not born in 1890.
That birth year, on his death certificate and provided by his son, is not accurate. Its about 10 years off.
What is John’s birth date? It’s *either* 22 June 1880 or 27 June 1880. These dates were provided by John himself, once when he was in his late 30s and once in his mid-50s. Memory problems may account for the difference in the day. This was also a period of time were many African-Americans would not have known their exact birth date.
I will cite both sources and both dates when I write this up.
The biggest takeaway of this post is said best by genealogist Thomas Jones:
“Conclusions about whether evidence is or is not correct results from aggregated evidence, not source by source assessment…” [emphasis mine]
When sources disagree, do you know how to evaluate them? Do you know the terms primary/secondary information and original/derivative source and what they mean?
Learn the basics of evidence analysis. For this, I recommend the book “Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case,” fourth edition, by Christine Rose. I also recommend Genealogy Standards, second edition, by the Board of Certification of Genealogists.
And whatever else you do, beware of the death certificate.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.