Genealogy pitfall: When good certificates go wrong

My great-uncle Leo's death certificate (1901).

As a genealogy enthusiast I forget not everyone hears the words “death certificate” with excitement. And truly, some death certificates are always hard to read, like this one for my grandfather’s brother Leo Haigney, who died a little ways past his third birthday, in 1901.

Leo died from tubercular meningitis; there wasn’t much hope in pre-antibiotic days. The doctor was called on February 15; Leo died a week later, on the morning of the 22nd. Convulsions were listed as the secondary cause of death. I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a parent to watch a death struggle like that. More accurately, I could if I really tried, but as a mother, I just don’t want to go there.

Instead,  I will imagine what it might have been like for my great-grandfather Joseph, Leo’s father, giving the information for the death certificate. This is not a task you’d do in a calm state of mind. My parents died twenty-five years apart, but the extreme fog on my brain was exactly the same each time, and it didn’t really lift until about a month after the funerals.

So, I’m not terribly surprised at what transpired on Leo’s certificate:

Father: Joseph Haigney, born U.S.

[Correct, given information from other sources.]

Mother: Mary Haigney, born Ireland.

[Incorrect, according to other sources. Leo’s mother was the former Catherine Connors, born in New York State.]

Why is “Mary Haigney” on Leo’s death certificate? Well, this information fits Joseph’s mother, whose name was Mary and who indeed was born in Ireland, according to census records. What seems likely  is that upon being asked the question, “Mother’s name?” a grieving father responded with his own mother’s name, not the name of the deceased child’s mother.

This little story shows why death certificates, though valuable, must be treated with a lot of caution.

Genealogical material can be divided into two important categories: original and derivative. Original material is based on firsthand knowledge of the people and events being described.  Derivative is everything else. Death certificates can fall into either category. For example, a deceased’s widow can’t automatically be expected to have firsthand knowledge of her inlaws’ birthplaces. But she might, if everyone grew up together in the same town.

So we find ourselves asking, who was the informant, and how likely were they to be right about the information they were asked to supply?

And we also have to factor in the state-of-mind problem. Does the information make sense given what we know from other sources? Even an informant we could expect to be right might get it wrong, as my great-grandfather did.

Here is a frank and informative discussion on how grief and disorientation can affect one’s ability to provide accurate information for death records. And here is another discussion about how to evaluate what’s on a death certificate.

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3 Comments on “Genealogy pitfall: When good certificates go wrong”

  1. Rachael Gehringer says:

    Hello,
    I have a problem finding my GGGrandparents. I found a death certificate for Grandmother and said she was interred in the towns cemetery where she lived and died. Later I found out by the care takers and church records that there were no such person interred there. A nice lady searched for me at another close by church cemetery and no luck there. Since then, I’ve searched other cemeteries nearby and in the next towns with no luck. With the Grandfather, a funeral was held in one church but he is not interred in the cemetery there and nearby ones as well.
    Are there any thing else I can do to find them?

    Thank You

    • Hi, Rachael!

      My first reaction is that this is a situation where an active genealogy message board could be a big help. I know that many find them passe, but questions like this come up a lot on lists I follow for Brooklyn, NY and Troy, NY, and local residents always come up with at least some interesting possibilities as to what could have happened.

      My other thoughts may or may not be new to you, but here goes anyway:
      – Find A Grave (obvious, but I felt I had to mention it!).
      – Name spellings: Any chance that an alternate spelling is making it hard to find them in the registers?
      – Contemporary newspaper accounts.
      – Funeral home files:This might be a long shot, but especially in smaller towns, people have had success writing to funeral homes and asking whether they have anything in their files about a relative whose arrangements were handled there. If not your GGG-parents, perhaps a child or grandchild of theirs might have a file in a local funeral home that could provide clues as to where this family tended to have burials. Which brings me to:
      – A cluster approach and oral family traditions: Cluster genealogy can work for burials just as it does for other family events. If there are any stories handed down about relatives of your GGG-parents, they might be worth re-examining for clues.

      In my family I have two instances where plot ownership is listed under the married name of a daughter, which of course was different from the surname I was searching. It didn’t affect my search because I found the burials listed under my search surname, but I thought I’d throw that idea in there, too :)

      Good luck in your search!

  2. Laura says:

    What a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing your poignant example.


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