Monday, December 31, 2012

Death Certificates - How Accurate?

This past fall I had gotten prints from microfilmed copies of death certificates of relatives who died in Minnesota. I scanned each certificate to create an electronic copy and then filed the paper copies. While I was doing this, I came across the death certificates of my parents, father-in-law and my brother.

Generally the informant, the person providing information such as place of birth, date of birth, parental information, occupation, etc., is included on the certificate. The informant is typically the surviving spouse or a son or daughter of the decedent. Occasionally, a parent or a brother or sister of the decedent is the informant.

I reviewed that information that was recorded on each those four death certificates and noted to myself who was identified as the informant on each one. My sister was the informant on my dad's certificate. My dad was the informant on my mother's. On my father-in-law' death certificate, my mother-in-law was recorded as the informant. However, my father was the informant on my brother's certificate.

Why is this significant?

A parent has more first hand information about his or her own child. The parent knows when and where his/her child was born. Most people know when and where they were born. Most people know when and where the spouse was born. Therefore, the information provided by a parent is usually more accurate than the information provided when the informant is a child, spouse or sibling. So as I perused each of these four death certificates, I was not surprised to find errors.

My mother's father died when she was 3 years old and her mother died when she was 6. So my father never knew his parents-in-laws. Both my maternal grandparents had a middle name, neither of which my father provided on my mother's death certificate. He also apparently was not aware that Max was not my grandfather's given name but a shortened form of his middle name, Maxwell. My grandmother was born in Wisconsin, not in Minnesota as my father obviously believed.

My sister was the informant on my father's death certificate. So what was the information that she provided that turns out not be be accurate? My father was a prototype machinist and not a machinist researcher. She estimated the number of years that my dad was in his occupation and was off by a year in the number of years in which my father lived in Orange County at the time of his death. My sister apparently did not know our grandmother's middle name as it does not appear on my father's death certificate.

I found it amusing that my mother-in-law was named as the informant on my father-in-law's death certificate as my husband called me to provide answers for the death certificate. Since I have been researching my family and his family, I actually knew more than my mother-in-law or my husband knew about my father-in-law's family. The one item that I didn't know at the time of my father-in-law's death was the name with which his father entered the United States.

Later, I found the ship manifest of the ship on which he, his mother, his twin brother and his older sister sailed from Europe. From all indications, my husband's great grandfather had changed his name before the rest of the family came to America. Thus, the name on my father-in-law's death certificate was the name that his father used throughout his lifetime.

As I gathered facts about my ancestors and relatives, I saw errors like these in many of the death certificates that I had obtained. The information often did not concur with what I saw in birth, marriage, and census records of the decedent.

Many of the certificates, the informant would not know the decedent's mother's maiden name. Often the informant would not know where the decedent's parents were born. Occasionally, I saw a death certificate that the informant did not know the names of the decedent's parents.

So as you read the information recorded on death certificates, it is important to know how the informant is related to the decedent. The farther removed, the more likely to be suspicious of accuracy of the information provided.

However, do not discount it altogether as there is likely to be a basis for why the informant may be confused. My father believed his mother-in-law to have been born in Minnesota. She along with her parents and siblings moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota when she was a young girl. Although she died as a young woman, her family remained in the same location in Minnesota for generations.

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