By Barb Bauer
Genealogy research often has a domino effect. Locating one new piece of information can open new paths to explore and can knock down brick walls you have been pounding on for years. In this article I will discuss some ways that you can use an ancestor’s date of death and/or last known location to help you reveal the cause.
The first step when trying to find a cause of death is to, of course, try and find a death certificate. But, many times, a certificate is not available and we are left with only a date found on a gravestone, in an index or even in a simply obituary. Sometimes we don’t even have that and can only estimate a date based on other records.
But even a small amount of information can help us turn up new details and potentially discover an ancestor’s cause of death.
First Things First, Find a Date of Death (or at Least an Estimate)
The most important first step when trying to discover how your ancestor died is to at least estimate a death date and location. You can do this by looking for records that generally contain this information (cemeteries, newspapers etc) or by using non-related records (such as the census or marriage certificates of children) to try to estimate when your ancestor passed away by exploring when and were they were last seen, or if they are mentioned as having died in the documents of relatives.
Try to secure these two pieces of information that are often easier to obtain than a cause of death:
- Exact or approximate date of death
- Approximate location of death (or last known location if unknown)
Also check old newspapers, pedigree books and online libraries that may contain information about your ancestor’s death date. You may also find the U.S. mortality schedules helpful (1850-1885) as well as city directories. These often overlooked records provide yearly data in some areas and sometimes make note of a person’s death.
For people who died after 1935, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a great place to start looking for dates of death for your ancestors.
Once you have an approximate location and a date – or estimated date based on other records – you can begin exploring what may have caused their death. We cover some options below.
Here are Several Avenues to Investigate When Trying to Locate a Cause of Death
First, Look in Newspapers, Hospital, Cemetery and Funeral Home Records
Hospital records can provide extremely valuable information about your ancestors and can give a cause of death when you can’t find a certificate. And while these records are limited, there is a wider selection available than in the past. Read this article for help using these records in your research.
Cemeteries and local funeral homes are also important places to explore. Sometimes they will reveal a cause of death as well as a date so take the time to track down which graveyard your ancestor was likely laid to rest in, and which funeral home their family may have used.
There are many cemetery sites online but funeral home records are harder to find. Read this guide from FamilySearch about what can be found in a Funeral Home record and then try and reach out to the historical society or library for your ancestor’s town to see if they can help you locate these records. Ancestry also has a cemetery and funeral home collection.
Here is a comprehensive article from Family History Daily about finding gravesites and visiting cemeteries.
Newspapers are an extremely important place to check as well – not just for obituaries, but also society news, news about accidents and more. Find free newspaper collections from all over the world in this article.
Also check for family websites and trees online that include your ancestors. These could contain the details you need – just make sure the information has a valid source or it may easily be inaccurate.
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Next, Research Disasters Your Ancestors May Have Been Involved In
Disasters encompass a wide range of events such as plane crashes, tornadoes, earthquakes, train wrecks, volcanic eruptions, and fires.
Let’s say, for instance, you have an ancestor who lived in California and they disappear off the face of the earth after the 1900 US census. Wikipedia has a table of large earthquakes that have occurred in California since 1812. It shows that between 1900 and 1910 (the year the next US census was taken), the famous and devastating San Francisco earthquake and fire happened on April 18, 1906. It is worth exploring whether your ancestor was affected by this disaster – either by death or injury or because they moved due to loss of home or opportunity (a chance to look for new records somewhere else).
Keep in mind that even if your ancestor did not live in San Francisco, they may have lived in a nearby town, been on vacation or working there at the time of the quake. Knowing this, you can look for lists of victims like this one compiled at The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco or this one, also from the museum which lists the dead and survivors.
The website GenDisasters specializes in capturing and making available information on disasters in the United States and Canada. On the website,, you can browse disasters by U.S. state, Canada, type of disaster, and year. Read more about the GenDisasters site and how to use it in this guide.
Another resource for focusing on US disasters is Wikipedia. It has a catalog of the worst disasters in the country’s history. Browsing through the lists may give you some new ideas about how to search for information on your relatives.
There may have been a disaster in the city your relative lived in or a nearby town, but you don’t know about it. For example, on May 31, 1889, the dam burst on the Little Conemaugh River in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and the resulting flood killed over 2,000 people including 99 entire families. Relatives living in a small town downriver from the dam like Brownstown may have also been affected by the flooding. The lists in Wikipedia let you sort by location so you can check for any leads or to see if something rings a bell about a relative or a location.
It may seem unlikely that some of your ancestors endured a flood or earthquake that may have destroyed all their possessions and possibly killed family members, without it being passed down to you in family stories. But things like this happen, and to get everything you can out of the work you put into your genealogy research you must leave no stone unturned.
If you are searching for relatives in regions outside the U.S., Wikipedia has a list of the largest natural disasters in the world sorted by death toll and by type of disaster.
These disaster lists are valuable because they let you approach your research in several ways depending on what information you have. Even a small tidbit or rumor about an ancestor can turn into gold if you know where to look.
Discovering more history and genealogical records for your family may not involve a large-scale accident or disaster. Smaller events – like the 1918 Cloquet fire in northern Minnesota that killed over 400 people – affected families at all points in time.
Another example on a smaller scale is the Great Blizzard of 1888. This 3-day storm, also called The Great White Hurricane was responsible for 400 deaths on the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine.
An important detail about fatalities from this disaster is that at least 100 of the people who died were seamen on the 200 ships that were grounded or wrecked because of the storm. Searching for more information on the topic will lead you to sources like this detailed summary of the storm from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Many resources exist just like this one for tragedies throughout the world.
Now, Explore Epidemics Big and Small
Epidemics caused by infectious diseases can kill hundreds, thousands, even millions of people in a very short time. But it doesn’t have to be a giant epidemic to be impactful. If you know an ancestor’s location, you can research smaller epidemics in that region and find clues that may help explain the cause of death and/or why the person’s information trail ends suddenly.
Wikipedia has a list of worldwide epidemics sortable by the number of deaths, location, date, the name of the epidemic, and the disease agent if known. Just by using the dates alone you can put together a research plan to look for additional information.
Do you have a relative from anywhere in the world who could have died between January 1918 and December 1920, but you don’t know why? The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 75 million people worldwide in just 2 years. At one point, about one-third of the world’s population (28% of the US population alone) was infected with the virus and it is estimated that 3% to 6% of the world’s population had died when it was all over.
An interesting aspect of the 1918 pandemic, unlike other flu epidemics to that point, was that it didn’t claim the lives of mostly young, old, and sick people; it killed a disproportionate amount of healthy young adults. This could be an important clue if your family tree has a young relative who disappears around the time of the epidemic but wasn’t in military service during World War I.
If you’re like me, cemeteries are a magnet and you love to walk through them and absorb the history while acknowledging that each grave, marked or unmarked, represents a person who lived a life no matter how long. I’m still struck whenever I see groups of two, three or more headstones from the same family with death dates in the range of the 1918 flu pandemic. So, keep an eye out for several relatives who all died within a few years of each other and check for disasters or epidemics around the same time.
Finally, Leave No Stone Unturned
This article does not cover every possible pathway for research when trying to find an ancestors cause of death, use your research skills and knowledge about your family and their communities to help you discover more. The important thing is not to give up in your search. Just because you cannot locate a death certificate does not mean you will never understand how your ancestor died.
If you’re completely stumped and the information in this article did not help, starting reading histories of your ancestor’s locale. Research other people who lived and died in the same time period. Educating yourself about your ancestors’ community is one of the best ways to discover new possible pathways for research and help you break down brick walls.
Barb Bauer is a biologist and freelance researcher and writer living in Michigan. She uses the investigative and critical thinking skills she honed in graduate school to research her family history and help others understand their past. Among her genealogical activities are fulfilling photo requests on FindaGrave.com, researching her family’s roots using their Ancestry DNA test results, and learning to decipher raw DNA analyses on GEDmatch.com. Barb’s other interests include vintage photography (she’s been a collector for over 20 years), cemeteries, science, antiques, cats, gardening, and backpacking. You can learn more about Barb and the freelance writing services she offers by visiting her website.