Death and the Family Tree: vital records for irreplaceable people
Genealogy research is usually framed around facts from basic life events such as birth, marriage, childbirth, migration, death, burial, and such. Lately, I have updated my tree with the worst kind of information: recent death dates. Today, my wife and I attended the funeral service of one of her maternal uncles. A couple of weeks ago, we unexpectedly lost a 22-year-old first cousin to a brain aneurysm Death is a common theme in genealogy. Our family histories hold numerous soldiers taken in war, women lost in childbearing, and children wiped out by epidemics. Like all deaths, these events drastically affected the lives of those involved and shaped the narrative of our story. Your ancestors died, and as someone supposedly remarked at President Lincoln’s death, they “now belong to the ages.” There is much speculation and discussion regarding what exactly happens after death. For family historians, one thing is certain about death: you need to update your tree.
The good news is that death creates a great paper trail. For example, obituaries are valuable sources for research. They usually list parents, maiden names, children, occupation, religious beliefs, and specific dates in the life of the deceased. Funeral programs serve the same purpose. Death certificates are also great sources for research. A significant part of my work involves Arkansas, which did not begin keeping death certificates until 1914. Although an index is available to the public, the actual certificates are $10 and must be obtained through the Department of Vital Records. Death certificates are usually filled out by someone acquainted with the deceased and include information such as parents, birthplace, birth date, residence, occupation, cause of death, and burial. These answers are subject to the witness’s account but still make a great resource. Social Security Administration also has some detailed records for the deceased. If an ancestor was a remarkable member of the community or died in some intriguing manner, newspaper accounts will provide valuable information. As I have mentioned before, cemeteries are also rich in history.
After the deaths of kings in the Old Testament, it was often written that he “slept with his fathers.” We will all go the way of our forefathers and mothers some day. Until then, let us learn their stories and share them with future generations.