When researching ancestors in Pennsylvania, the state-issued Death Certificates are a good place to begin.
The state of PA first issued death certificates in January 1906. The process begins with a doctor or coroner noting the date and time of death, place, and cause(s). The funeral director completes much of the remaining certificate with the aid of an informant. Handwritten death certificates easily show who completed which parts of it, helping our analysis.
Death Certificate Information
The diligent family researcher will check the name of the informant and ask “Who is this person?” This informant is usually a family member, although it could be a person little known to the deceased, such as hospital staff. Nothing provided by the informant is verified with documentation. In other words, a family member does not need to produce a birth certificate proving who the deceased parents’ were, or where and when he or she was born. The state also does not match death certificates to birth certificates.
Genealogists would love nothing more than to have error-free information on death certificates. Unfortunately, no one who dies completes the information for his or her own death certificate ahead of time. We rely on family and others to be accurate and honest. The emotions surrounding the death could cloud memories. Birth parents, dates and places could have been changed or been secret for various reasons. Clerks could misunderstand or make spelling errors. Any imagined reason is possible!
When researching family in PA, keep in mind the death of a Pennsylvania resident may be far away from Pennsylvania. For example, if a PA resident died on a trip to California, California would record the death and issue a death certificate for that person. Pennsylvania does not list the death here too. Sometimes the only way to know if a person died away from their home is through a newspaper article or obituary. Occasionally probate records mention of place of death.
Obtaining Copies of Death Certificates
To obtain a copy of a PA Death Certificate is easy. Non-certified copies of death certificates are available in January of the year 50 years after date of issue. For example, in January 2020, anyone from the public could request a certificate dated prior to December 1969. Indexes of death certificates are available on Pennsylvania State Archive website. Ancestry digitized the Archive’s paper certificates in full color, and access to these is available for free to PA residents. Only certified copies are available to family members for any deceased person within the last fifty years. Applications and ordering available through the PA Department of Health.
If you research many family members in PA, you’ll see major additions made to the death certificate form in 1937. Also don’t forget to check the back of the digitized online certificates. These are not indexed by Ancestry, and sometimes contain notes, veteran’s status, and random details. When you request certified copies, you get a current death certificate form with the “old death certificate” information typed into it. Try to use the publicly accessible archival death certificates when possible.
To learn more about death certificates and using them in family history research, be sure to listen to my podcast episodes on vital records.