Talking U.S.A. Death Records

By Andy Mccarthy, Librarian II
September 8, 2016
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

"And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements"

—"Thanatopsis," William Cullen Bryant

A death record is a legal statement of fact that provides information for purposes other than the apparent fact that the subject individual is dead. Death is one's last vital act, and a death certificate is known as a vital record. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “vital” as “consisting in, constituted by, that immaterial force or principle which is present in living beings or organisms and by which they are animated and their functions maintained.”

Proof of a vital event demands an authority to create, issue, and file the record, whether a civil authority, like the state or federal government, or a religious authority, like the church. For example, in 1632, the colony of Virginia was the first in America to make laws for record-keeping of the sacramental vital acts of baptism, matrimony, and burial, registered by wardens and ministers of the church. But Massachusetts, two hundred years later, was the first civic body to enact laws for government officials to register births, marriages and deaths.

The government is an institution that drives one to the grave with taxes and student loan debt, while the church promises that in death, there is life.

Death certificate for early Hollywood film starlet Thelma Todd. Suspicions abounded that Ms. Todd was murdered,

In the 1930s and '40s, the Works Projects Administration initiated a state-by-state series of Historical Records Surveys of vital and church records, which remain resources of value in the reference stacks. “In the early days of this country,” notes the introduction to Guide to Public Vital Statistics Records in New York State, “the recording of a marriage, birth, or death was looked upon as a personal matter with which the government, state or local, had no legitimate concern.” People panicked that the government was recording private information for nefarious ends, similar to the twenty-first century paranoia over the surveillance of telecommunications metadata by the National Security Agency. In the years of the early republic, Americans were much more at ease registering baptisms, matrimonials, and burials with their local house of worship.

The collection of death records by state governments emerged in the nineteenth century for reasons related to insurance and pensions, and for statistical reasons in support of studying mortal diseases. Researchers for the Census Bureau, in 1950, described it as “the control of epidemics and the conservation of human life through sanitary reform.” One of the pioneers of using vital statistics in support of public health was John Shaw Billings, who in 1880 was both the chairman of the Committee on Vital Statistics for the National Board of Health, and the chief of the U.S. census of mortality. The mortality census was a schedule of names of individuals who died that census year, and included family, occupational, and other personal data. Billings would also later become the first director of the New York Public Library, and the inventor of the classification system that the research library still uses for its catalog.

Billings was active at a time when the local coroner, called in to determine a cause of death in suspicious or inconclusive circumstances, was not required to have any medical background. A 1915 pamphlet published in New York considered the coroner “wasteful, harmful, and useless,” a patronage job given to district lackeys by machine bosses. The coroner was replaced by the office of the medical examiner, which records today are not open to the public, but might be obtainable by a freedom of information act request.

In 1820, the U.S. government passed the first law requiring that vessels carrying passengers to the U.S. keep a ship manifest of all people on board, including passengers whom god called home before the ship arrived at the port of disembarkation. These manifests might also serve as a vital record. Immigrant mortality was high because of the often nasty conditions of the steerage quarters, where cargo was held when the ship left America for Europe, and where people were held when the ship made its return voyage. In the early nineteenth century, when vital recordkeeping was scant, these lists of deaths-at-sea might be the only document indicating an individual’s departing.

Though vital records serve as rich resources of genealogy information for future researchers, they are not created for genealogical research purposes. For death records, access is usually restricted by a set number of years before they are officially public, and the years are different according to the health laws of each state or sometimes county or city. The genealogy data in these death records is highly valuable; the alienating rules of access to vital records only makes them more valuable because the materials increasingly may include information unavailable elsewhere. Vital statistics are collected, but the death certificate itself is not public. Freedom of Information Act laws, which were re-legislated in June 2016 in a congratulatory but anti-climactic manner, have proven to compel local civic institutions to release to the public formerly restricted records of birth, marriage, and death. Otherwise, access depends on state or city laws.

In New York City, death records are restricted after 1949, decidedly but without clarity. In Chicago, death certificates are public record after twenty years, while in Oklahoma they remain private for seventy-five years. In Arizona, where a legal non-prohibited possessor can carry on openly holstered gun without a license, death indexes are online up to 1960. And such a possessor in Arizona who ventilates a person with a gun using lawful deadly force will be able to obtain the death certificate for the gunshot victim, if the shooter happens to be eligible by state law, which requirements are very detailed but potentially achievable as explained on the website of the Arizona Department of Health Services. New York State and NYC offer no likewise detailed eligibility for death records, seemingly available fifty years after the mortal event for NY State, and seventy-five for NYC.

The two most sought after alternate resources for death information are probate records, or wills, and obituaries. Often, a will was never made, and an obituary, or death notice, was never published. But both, if available, are ripe with information, like dates of death, names of relatives, place of burial, date of burial, location of the funeral, list of assets, and other family history information. A will is essentially an instrument whereby one is allowed to legally remain in possession of one’s own property after having merged with the infinite. Going back to Babylon in 2200 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi sets forth twenty sections on how a man may distribute his property in both life and in death. The website Family Search makes wills and probate records from many states available to browse, using digitized indexes to locate specific volume and page numbers. It can be a cumbersome process, but also a payoff. The records are public; one week after the death of David Bowie, in January, the NY Times published a detailed summary of the will left by the Thin White Duke.

“Obituary” is the common term for a notable write-up in the newspaper of a deceased individual’s life. The New York Times has created its own literary genre of obituaries, and, suitably, when the reporters perform research for the obit, they will often use the files collected in the newspaper “morgue,” which is an industry term for where millions of clippings and photo files from the paper retire after publication.

The 1977 LA Times obituary for Elvis Presley. Some believe the King is still alive.

A “death notice” is the more common term for a paid listing in a local newspaper. NYPL has many NYC and U.S. newspapers available through digital databases, but plenty more available only on microfilm, like the Daily News and the New York Post, or local papers that cover certain neighborhoods, like the Bronx Press-Review, or The Villager.

In June of this year, the office of the New York City Comptroller released an audit of the Department of Finance, which found that, since 2011, almost $60 million in property tax breaks had been paid out to dead building owners. While alive, the owners had qualified for the Senior Citizen Homeowners' Exemption, which exemption was then never removed from the property once the owners were gathered to their ancestors. Lack of oversight by the Dept. of Finance then caused the new, ineligible owners to continue to receive the benefits. The auditors proved the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers by using the Social Security Death Master File, a massive but incomplete American necrological register. The index to the master file has been digitized and is mostly searchable for deaths that have occurred since the 1960s.

Several days after the death of trailblazing showbiz satirist Garry Shandling, the death certificate remained unsigned by his primary physician, because the doctor had not examined the comedian in over a year, and was not in the position to determine the cause of death. Meanwhile, after 9/11, death certificates were issued in haste for people who remained missing, but without proof of having not survived.​

Other examples of records that might represent the flight of souls from mortal coils, include gravestone inscriptions, bodies in transit records, Headstone and Interment Records for U.S. Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil, coroner's inquisitions, the Department of Veterans Affairs Beneficiary Identification Records Locater Subsystem Death File, or the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center Ohio Obituary Index.

At the local history and genealogy reference desk, librarians are approached with questions about grandfathers thrown off roofs, impaled great-uncles, and uxoricides. Unlike many U.S. death records, patrons can be very open.

This post is adapted from the text of a lecture given on behalf of the Milstein Division for a panel discussion on the subject of death records, hosted by the Archivists Round Table on July 14, 2016, at the Brooklyn Historical Society.