Anyone compiling a family history or other research project may confront the problem of locating information on someone who died years ago. Whether searching for a death certificate or creating a basis for finding other information about the person's life, the original search steps are similar. Use family and friends' stories and free public records to begin your search. After you have located the deceased, other resources, both free and commercial, can expand information about their lives. Be prepared to persist in your search, and enjoy the process of finding someone others may have wondered about and missed.
Assemble existing information on the deceased's full name and probable location at the end of life. Ask relatives and friends for pertinent information: his first and middle name if you have only a nickname (Charles Windham Smith, rather than Buddy), any occupational or membership information (an electrician and a Mason), his last known location (from Maple Street to somewhere outside Indianapolis) and an approximate span of years in which he might have died (he moved away several years after retirement because he was no longer able to shovel snow; his sister received a Christmas card in 1985). The stories of family members and friends all contain clues that will help in your search. Public record searches are often based on 10-year spans of time.
Directly contact the Office of Vital Statistics closest to where the deceased may have died. Usually records of birth, marriage and death are registered at both a county and state level. Often counties will transfer records after a number of years and refer you to the state. You may be required to complete a request on paper or online, state the reason you wish this information and pay a small search and copying fee. Many commercial companies will conduct a search for you; remember that you are likely to pay additional fees for their services.
Broaden your search to contiguous states, especially if the last known address was close to a state line. Someone last known to have been living close to the Washington/Oregon border in Washington may have died in either state, whether through moving or an accident. Death from an automobile accident, for example, will be registered in the state where it occurred, not the state where the deceased lived.
Use possible memberships in national organizations to expand your search. Someone known as an active member of the Elks, American Legion or the Masons is likely to have transferred his membership to a local chapter. Contact a state chapter to determine how to search for information. A formerly active labor union member may have received benefits throughout his life. Begin with the local union welfare office or find national contact information through your library.
Find free or commercial genealogical assistance online. Samples include the USGenWeb Project and the RootsWeb section of Ancestry.com. Free sites provide contact information for public record searches; commercial sites offer both contact information and additional help but charge for membership. Both will save you some time in developing contacts and may also put you in touch with others conducting the same or similar searches.
Items you will need
- Name and approximate (or known) birth and death dates of the deceased
- State and county Office of Vital Statistics contact information
- Document-processing fees
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