The information on a death certificate is a rich terrain for genealogists, but a tricky one. We cannot take all of its information as accurate without more information from other sources.
The date and cause of death on a death certificate is usually verified by the attending medical professional and has a high probability of accuracy. However, the family information provided and the birthdate is only as good as the person who is providing it. Thus you need to notice who the informant is on the document. It is often a spouse or child, but could also be an unrelated neighbor or friend. It could also be hospital records. Worse, that box could be blank.
The death information is considered primary information, since it is usually recorded shortly after the actual event by a person who witnessed the occurrence. On the other hand, the birthdate and the parents of the deceased is usually secondary information. The person providing that information was likely not present at the time of birth of the deceased, and may not have firsthand knowledge of who their parents were. Obvious exceptions to this would be a mother or father who is the informant for the death of their child.
An example is instructive here. John Smith’s 1960 death certificate, shown above, provides a birthdate of June 22, 1890. The informant is John’s son William. Would you automatically take that date and put it in your trusty genealogy program as fact? Is that date accurate?
The answer is we have no idea.
Not until we assess other sources that address John’s birthdate. We then need to take those sources and correlate what information within them agrees and what does not.
During the time of his life, several sources speak to John’s date of birth. He appears on four census records, and we have his World War I draft registration and Social Security Application(SS5) . That’s six other sources. Each of these sources has its own strengths and weaknesses. All of these are original sources, instead of derivative sources.
John’s birthdate in census records is as follows:
1900: age 22 (b. 1878)
1930: age 45 (b. 1885)
1935: age 55 (b. 1880)
1940: age 59 (b. 1881)
Although they are helpful, census records are notoriously error-prone. We also have no idea who provided the information.
Two other sources for John’s birth are stronger sources for Johns birthdate. Both the World War I draft registration and the original Social Security Application (SS5) contain primary information for John’s birthdate since the clerk filling out the form was getting the information directly from the individual.(In this case, John was not literate, so someone else was filling out both forms.)
John’s Word War I card records a birthdate of June 27, 1880:
John’s SS5 records a birthdate of June 22, 1880:
So what we know for sure after evaluating all the relevant evidence is that John was not born in 1890. That birthdate, on his death certificate and provided by his son is not accurate. Its about 10 years off.
What is John’s birthdate? It’s *either* June 22, 1880 or June 27, 1880. These dates were provided by John himself, once in his late 30s and once in his mid-50s. Memory problems may account for the difference in the day.
The biggest takeaway of this post is said best by genealogist Thomas Jones:
“Conclusions about whether evidence is or is not correct results from aggregated evidence, not source by source assessment…” [emphasis mine]
When sources disagree, do you know how to evaluate them? Do you know the terms primary/secondary information and original/derivative source and what they mean? Learn the basics of evidence analysis. I recommend the small book: “Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case,” fourth edition, by Christine Rose.
And whatever else you do, beware of the death certificate.