Four Ways to Analyze a Death Certificate

Pennsylvania death certificates have changed over the last century, yet there are four ways to examine them and get more information for genealogy research.

Four Ways to Analyze a Death Certificate
Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

The Pennsylvania death certificate evolved since it began 115 years ago. Yet there are four areas researchers want to pay extra attention to get the most of this genealogy record.


In the rush to see the deceased parents’ names and birth places, many people skip over the Informant. Check the name and address of the person who provided – or worse, didn’t provide – the parents’ information.

  • Is he or she related to the deceased?
  • What is exactly is that relationship?
  • What is the likelihood the informant met the parents of the deceased? If the Informant lived area the same area as the deceased parents, it is very likely the information is more correct than if they never met.
  • If the informant is not related to the deceased, how did they obtain the information on the death certificate? Investigate that person or place to learn the ties between them and your ancestor.
  • If the ancestor died in an institution or hospital, are there records available you can research?


Today most people die in hospitals or nursing homes. For our ancestors, the most common place to die was at home. Back in the 1950’s and earlier, doctors made house calls and would provide care and instructions for the family of how to care for their family member.

If the address listed on the death certificate wasn’t their own home or a facility, it was likely the home of a relative. Check the address against your records for the ancestor’s siblings, children, and nieces and nephews. This person was likely emotionally close to your ancestor. Knowing these relatives could help you when you run into stubborn research problems.

Burial Place

In a few tiny blocks at the bottom of the death certificate is the burial place. Exactly what happened with the deceased’s body? Burial is most common practice, but follow up with the cemetery. Check the cemetery and location to the place of death. One easy way is using FindaGrave or BillionGraves. If there isn’t a memorial on either website, contact the cemetery itself for burial records.

If no burial place is listed, its time for more research! Check the back of the form and all around the margins to see if the body was donated to a medical school. Also check the undertaker’s name and follow up with the local historical society to see where those records might be. If the person died at an institution, they may be buried onsite. The PA State Archives has institutional records you can request.

Coroner Certificate

Did you know Pennsylvania had the position of Coroner since it’s beginning as an English colony? The Coroner is called to assess the cause of death and if criminally caused. The position is at the county level, and like with most genealogy records, the county is a good starting place for research.

Be sure to check the top of the death certificate to see if it says “Coroner’s Certificate” or if the Coroner signed instead of a doctor in the medical section. If you find a one, follow-up with the county courthouse to see if there are records from the Coroner’s investigation you can examine.

PA death certificates are a treasure trove of information for genealogists. Fortunately digitized death certificates from the original paper in full-color are on Pennsylvania residents can access the collection for free. See the PA State Archives website for details.