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One Day for Fun I Read 2,000 Death Certificates


Ok, maybe this blog post title is a bit misleading. I did originally browse death certificates, 1-by-1 in the California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994 FamilySearch collection because I was looking for a specific death certificate for a client's mysterious ancestor (I never found it). But I continued looking through the collection of death certificates to see what I could learn from them.


Studying Records

I’ve actually done this type of in-depth record study before. A few years ago, I made weekly visits to the National Archives at Riverside  to study, file-by-file National Archives RG 21, specifically the women’s repatriation files. I looked through each file, studied, and made copies of documents I found unusual or that I wanted to study more. These NARA files are for those women who were requesting their US citizenship after losing it by marrying a non-US citizen. Unlike other NARA facilities, Riverside's collection includes the documents women used to prove their US citizenship which meant genealogically rich treasures such as affidavits and vital records.

So what’s the purpose of doing this? Why am I taking time to study records that have nothing to do with my own ancestors?

Continuing genealogy education.

A careful study of a set of records can help you learn more than if you are simply using a record or two for your own personal genealogical research. Take for instance the Long Beach, Los Angeles County California Death Certificates I read. I was able to learn more about the form used (including some of the instructions that were also part of the digitized images). 

Record-image_ (5)
"California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 12 November 2014), Los Angeles, Long Beach > Death certificates 1921 no 600-900 > image 150 of 326; California State Archives, Sacramento. 

But in studying these records:

  • I learned more about what people died from (whether naturally, by suicide, homicide or accident).
  • I learned what cemeteries and funeral homes existed.
  • I learned about occupations in the area and the deaths caused by various occupations (Long Beach was home to oil drilling and not surprisingly many occupational accidents resulting in death for those oil workers).
  • I also learned that not all death certificates provide the information we expect. For example, this certificate for my great-grandmother's brother that is missing his  cause of death .
Joseph Chatham Death
"California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 26 September 2019), Los Angeles > Death certificates 1956 no 6170-8250 > image 1568 of 2529; California State Archives, Sacramento.

I also learned more about that specific FamilySearch collection.  For example, in the link for Death Certificates 1902-1963, the first few images are not of death certificates but instead they are for a Transportation of a Corpse

Record-image_ (7)
"California, County Birth and Death Records, 1800-1994," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 12 November 2014), Los Angeles, Long Beach > Death certificates 1902-1963 > image 1 of 371; California State Archives, Sacramento.

Finding these anomalies is one of the benefits of browsing rather than searching.

Who Cares?

On the surface this may appear to be a meaningless exercise that serves no real purpose other than adding one more thing to your to-do list, taking away time from finding your ancestors. However, when I think about browsing and studying  records rather than just searching I’m reminded of the ‘good old days’ of genealogy when we didn’t have access to digitized images which meant we had to go through microfilm image-by-image to find what we needed. That is real research. And what we miss in today’s world of search engines and automated hints is the opportunity to get to know the records we are searching and to find information we weren’t expecting.  Remember that there can be all kinds of reasons you don’t find someone in a record including transcription and indexing errors but also items filmed out of order.

Will I continue to go through a record set document by document? Absolutely, and I frequently do it to learn more about a record that is unfamiliar to me or to see what may exist. Genealogy education is about watching, listening, and doing. Going through records one-by-one is one way to do that.


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.


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I too searched some documents page by page. I learned from the pages that the Common Pleas courts in Warrick County, Indiana only met every 4 months.

I have found a lot of stuff just by chance too. For example, a cousin asked me to pull the marriage certificate for her aunt. The marriage certificate clearly stated her date of birth as being in 1922. When I pulled the BC reel I found the BC but it looked like there was tape covering the birth year. When I looked closer I realized that I had pulled the reel for 1923 - not 1922. If I had pulled the correct reel I might not have found it - well, not as easily since I usually do search 2 years on either side of a date I'm given if I can't find it right away. Very interesting blog.

Very nice article, Gena. I was as surprised as you that a Cause of Death was not on your GG-Uncle's death certificate.

In looking closely at Box 19B on that certificate, it states that cause is "below." Sure enough at the very bottom you can see a box for "Disease or Condition." So the certificate did record the cause of death, but the scanner of the document did not include the entire certificate. You'd have to purchase an original copy to see this.

Another worthwhile effort that brings the same results is transcription of records at I find it's good "piecework." Keeps the mind busy with repetitive and educational tasks. Just select Volunteer/Index Historical Records.

I, too, have gone through (almost) a complete set of records when I couldn't find a close relative in the census. As expected, the surname was transcribed incorrectly, replacing the first letter "H" with a "K". Along the way, I found the relative's baptism godmother living on the street behind them. I would never have looked for her if I had found my relative easily!

Thanks for the reminder Gena.

Another piece of information often of importance is the name and relationship of the informant. My great-grandfather gave information about a man who had the same last name as my great-grandmother's maiden name. The death certificate also listed the deceased mother's maiden name. Both were gems I would not have ever seen.

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