Death Certificates

The human skull is a universal symbol for death.

Have you ever had to fill out a death certificate? You’d be surprised how much information is required. A death certificate is a legal document that contains the deceased person’s vital statistics and cause of death. It is usually signed by a medical examiner, a physician or a coroner and is commonly used to satisfy inquiries by creditors and insurance companies.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a standard death certificate that comes with three pages worth of instructions. Apart from the obvious information  (such as name, address and social security number), some of the other stuff that is recorded on the form is rather surprising and also a little bit depressing:

#4a Age – Last Birthday (Years)

#4b Under 1 Year (Months & Days)

#4c Under 1 Day (Hours & Minutes) – this is just heartbreaking.

#18 Method of Disposition (Burial, Cremation, Donation, Entombment, Removal from State (Huh?), Other)

#35 Did Tobacco Use Contribute to Death? (Yes, No, Probably, Unknown)

#37 Manner of Death (Natural, Homicide, Accident, Suicide, Pending Investigation, Could Not Be Determined)

#40 Place of Injury (e.g., Decedent’s Home; Construction Site; Restaurant; Wooded Area) – I guess the ‘wooded area’ refers to death by hunting or perhaps a falling tree?

These questions are supposed to be completed by the Funeral Director:

#51 Decedent’s Education (8th grade or less, 9th – 12th grade; no diploma, high school graduate/GED completed, some college credit but no degree, Associate degree, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, Doctorate)

#52 Decedent of Hispanic Origin? (per the instructions, “Information in this section will not appear on the certified copy of the death certificate. This information is needed to identify health problems in a large minority population in the United States. Identifying health problems will make it possible to target public health resources to this important segment of our population.” Hmm. Right.).

#54 Decedent’s Usual Occupation (Indicate type of work done during most of working life. DO NOT USE RETIRED).

That’s a lot on information, don’t you think? But I suppose it’s helpful to have the decedent’s vital statistics recorded for genealogy and historical purposes. Death certificates weren’t even used back in the day (in the early 1800’s), so think of all the information that could have been written about our ancestors.

You can request a copy of a death certificate from your vital records office. Missouri provides easy access to millions of Missourian death certificates online, courtesy of the Missouri State Archives. I did a random search for decedents named ‘John Smith’ and it resulted in 993 records! I looked at two of them – the first was of a John Smith who died on June 28, 1931. His date of birth was unknown and he was colored (I detest this word), single and a laborer. The cause of death was Cerebro-Spinal something (I couldn’t make out the last word). His parents were Richard Smith and Joily Adkins.

The other certificate was of a John Smith who died on November 18, 1913. He was born “about 1858” and was white and married. His occupation was “Teamster” and the cause of death was pnuemonia. Under the ‘Parents’ section were the words “Dont Know.”

I stopped my search after that. It was starting to get depressing.

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One comment on “Death Certificates

  1. Debe Branning says:

    I love death certs when doing research on haunted places! (and genealogy)

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