Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Why are Vital Records Vital to Genealogists? Part Five -- Death, Interment and Burial

By NotFromUtrecht - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3
With the large, online cemetery record websites such as and, it would seem that cemetery records are one of the few ways to find death and burial records but cemetery records are certainly not the only records maintained concerning burials or deaths. During the past 100 years or so in the United States, the burial process produces a sizable list of records. Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example of the types of records that could exist.

Let's suppose that a person named John Doe died within the past 100 years in the United States. He was a resident of Arizona but died in New Mexico. Since this is a hypothetical situation, I can make it as complicated as I wish. He was in an accident and died in a hospital so there are hospital records of his injuries. There is likely a newspaper report of the accident and his subsequent death. There are also police records of the investigation of the accident. When he died, an attending physician might be present or must be called. He is the one who signs the death certificate with the state. A local mortuary is usually called to come and remove the body so there are mortuary records. In my example, John Doe's family is in Arizona and they want him buried in Arizona. So they have to make arrangements with a local mortuary to receive the body and with the mortuary in New Mexico to transport the body. This creates more mortuary records. The family then has to obtain, through the mortuary, a permission from the government to transport the body. The body then is sent by train to Arizona where it is received by the local mortuary. More records are generated by the railway such as shipping records. The family has to make arrangements in Arizona to purchase a burial plot. The mortuary could be involved in that process or the family may have gone directly to the cemetery. There is a contract for the sale of the cemetery plot and a deed for the plot. The mortuary then prepares the body for burial and usually sells the family a coffin. There are documents regarding the sale of the coffin. The family would like to have a funeral and a graveside service and there are usually documents such as a funeral program or graveside service program that are printed up for those who attend the funeral. The family also wants some flowers so there is a contract for purchasing the flowers. The mortuary usually provides a guest book (included in the price of the funeral) and so that guest book may be available. The family also wants to notify people of the funeral so the family or the mortuary or the newspaper writes an obituary or death notice. Before the funeral is held, the mortuary has to obtain both a Permit for Burial and a permit to open the grave from the county or state. After the funeral, the body is transported to the cemetery and buried. There is then a permit issued to close the grave. Once the body is buried, there may also be a contract to maintain the cemetery plot. The family may wish to mark the grave and may have a contract for the creation of a headstone or tombstone. The cemetery makes a record of which graves have been created and which ones have headstones or not. In some cultures and religions, memorial services may be held for the deceased a year after the death. Sometimes a memorial is printed in a local newspaper a year or more after the death. At some point, the state or county will make an index of all their burials.

Now, bear in mind that this was a hypothetical situation. None of these records may actually still exist. My hypothetical person may have been lost at sea or wandered off into the desert and died. If my hypothetical John Doe was in the Army or other military organization and killed in action or otherwise died, then there would be another different set of records concerning his missing in action or the recovery of his body and burial, if he were identified.

One of the great tragedies of our family history is all the babies and children who died while still very young. Many of their short lives were never recorded. But sometimes they show up in family records or in cemetery records. Here is an example of a Permit for Burial and a Permit for Grave from the Mesa, Arizona City Cemetery showing the death of baby.

"Arizona, Maricopa, Mesa City Cemetery Records, 1885-1960," images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 2 February 2016), Maricopa > Burial permits 1919-1986 vol 1 > image 3 of 247; Mesa Cit
These records were found in the Cemetery Office in file cabinets. No one except the cemetery workers seemed to know of their existence. This is likely the only written record of this baby's very short life and death.

The question probably comes up as to where all of these death records are found? This is a good question but it can only be answered on a place by place basis. Tracking down the death and cemetery records for individuals is one of the more challenging parts of genealogical research. It helps to know that the records might exist, but finding them is an entirely different matter. Most of the large online genealogy database programs have collections of death records. These records are largely church records, cemetery records and death certificates where available. There are also huge cemetery programs such as and But beyond looking online, it is often necessary to visit the locations and do onsite research.

Here are the previous installments of this series.


  1. Oh, I like this game. May I complicate it even further? Unless you are an immediate family member, New Mexico will not let you have a copy of the death certificate. In this instance, a nephew is not considered immediate enough. Been there, done that. If your connection is not close enough, you will not be able to find out through the death certificate which mortuary handled the removal of the body to Arizona or where they sent it. You will have to figure out a way to work around this roadblock. Notice I did not say "brick wall."

    1. Thanks for the reminder, I will have to touch on the issues of "privacy" before I finish.