Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Death Certificates — Sources of Primary & Secondary Information

Since we were talking about death certificates the other day, it seems like a good time to talk about the type of information you can get from a death certificate. For those of you who can view pictures posted with my blogs, I am posting a copy of Edwin J. McQuillin's death certificate. I downloaded this record from the Missouri Archives Web site. Edwin happens to be my first cousin, three times removed (hmm, sounds like a topic for another post).

A death certificate is a funky little document, in that it can be considered a primary source for some pieces of information and a secondary source for others. A primary source is a document, photocopy, photograph, or written account of an event recorded at the time the event took place or shortly thereafter by a witness to the event. Edwin's death certificate would be a primary source for the following information:

1. Full Name
2. Sex
3. Race or Color
4. Marital Status
5. Occupation
6. Place of Death
7. Date of Death
8. Cause of Death
9. Place of Burial
10. Date of Burial

Because this information was taken shortly after Edwin's death (two days later), it is reasonable to assume the information is accurate. Although a written mistake, a slip of the tongue or a miscommunication could cause an error, in most cases this information is correct.

Secondary sources are those that are not primary sources. In other words, the information given was many months, years or decades after the event. So a death certificate is a secondary source for the following:

1. Date of Birth
2. Age
3. Place of Birth
4. Father's name
5. Father's place of birth
6. Mother's name
7. Mother's place of birth

Secondary information is only as reliable as the person giving the information. In this case, Ada McQuillin is the informant. Ada was Edwin's youngest daughter who was still living at home at the time of his death. A marriage record, census records, and a common pleas court case confirm much of Ada's information. Which brings me to the most important point — it is essential to look at multiple records when reconstructing an individual's life.

Until Next Time — Happy Ancestral Digging!

Certificate of Death: Edwin J. McQuillin, Filed 10 Apr 1913. State of Missouri, Dept. of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Reg. Dist. 400, File No. 13431. Digital Record, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri.

Note this post first published online, October 31, 2007, at Desktop Genealogist Blog at The News-Messenger Online

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