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Two certificates, or more

It never fails.

Finish a blog post, get it posted, sit back, and somebody is sure to do it.

Somebody will remind The Legal Genealogist of questions that woulda-coulda-shoulda been addressed the first time around.

Yesterday was no exception.

death.certNo sooner had “Death in the wrong place”1 been published on the blog when long-time reader John Roose had just a couple of questions which, if I’d thought about it, should have had answers included yesterday.

First, he wondered, if Montana was issuing death certificates for people who were being buried in Montana but who had died elsewhere, doesn’t this mean that there are going to be two death certificates for any such person? One in Montana and one in the jurisdiction in which the person died?

Oh yes. There sure will be. As a matter of fact, the individual who originally posted the question on Facebook about Montana issuing a death certificate for a man who died in Minnesota was able to find the Minnesota death certificate for that individual.

And, of course, a good genealogist is going to get both. Because there’s a very good chance that information recorded on one such certificate won’t be on the other.

Remember the way the Montana regulation said the death certificate there was to be filled out: with information from the transit permit that accompanied the body from the original jurisdiction.2 Anything not recorded on that shipping document wouldn’t make it onto the death certificate.

Looking again at those Beaverhead County examples, it’s clear that not everything we’d want to know as genealogists made it onto the Montana certificates. Frank Birrer’s Montana death certificate didn’t identify his mother, or his exact date of birth, for example.3 Maybe his Washington State death certificate didn’t either, but I’d sure want to look.

And remember as well that every state will handle this issue of an out-of-state burial differently. Not all of them will issue death certificates in the burial state at all. This is a matter of state law, and it won’t always be the same as it was in Montana.

Second, John wanted to know, how would you locate the burial place from the certificate issued in the place where the person died or the death location from the certificate issued in the place where the person was buried?

Now that really should be easy — because each certificate should have that information.

• The death certificate where the person died should state what was being done with the remains: burial or cremation; when and where; the identity of the funeral director and the like. Certainly by the 1940s — when the certificates we were looking at yesterday were issued — the standard forms called for that information. And remember, there had been a recommended standard death certificate form as far back as 1900.4

• The death certificate where the burial was to take place should identify the place of death. That’s pretty basic information and none of the certificates I saw yesterday omitted that rather critical bit of data.

But then John noted that that didn’t seem to be univerally true: his own father’s death certificate, issued where he died in North Carolina, didn’t mention that the burial was out of state. It did give the name of the cemetery but didn’t bother mentioning that the cemetery was in Pennsylvania.

Wait a minute.

I’ve got a lot of North Carolina lines in my ancestry and have looked at a lot of North Carolina death certificates. In fact, North Carolina death certificates are online at Ancestry. And I was pretty sure that data should be there.

I quickly found John’s father’s death certificate, and it said right out that the burial was in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. I pointed that out to John.

Nope, he said. Not on his copy.

You know where this is headed, right?

What John had in his and the family’s possession was yet another flavor of death certificate.

It was typed on a form labeled “Certified Certificate of Death,” with a raised seal — from the county where John’s father died. Perfectly legal, good for all the things we need death certificates for, like opening an estate, or handling insurance claims, or getting bank accounts turned over.

But it was not an exact copy of the document that went to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the state capital of Raleigh with all the information we might want on it.

Among the key differences:

• The county certificate doesn’t mention the decedent was married or give the widow’s maiden name; the state certificate does.

• The county certificate doesn’t say what the decedent did for a living; the state certificate does.

• The county certificate doesn’t identify the funeral home or the location of the cemetery; the state certificate does.

• And the critical piece for us as genealogists — the county certificate doesn’t say who the informants were: who provided the data about the death or about the family information; the state certificate does.

So there may not be two death certificates in the case of a death here and a burial there. There may be three death certificates.

And as careful researchers trying to do our reasonably exhaustive research, we’re going to want to get our hot little hands on every one of them.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Death in the wrong place,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 21 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 22 Jan 2015).
  2. Public Health Laws and Regulations, State of Montana, Bulletin of the State Board of Health (Helena: State Board of Health, 1936), 62-63; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  3. Montana Bureau of Vital Statistics, death certificate no. 2788 (1943), Frank P. Birrer; digital images, “Montana, Beaverhead County Records, 1862-2009,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 20 Jan 2015).
  4. James A. Weed, “Vital Statistics in the United States: Preparing for the Next Century,” Population Index 61 (Winter 1995): 527-529; Office of Population Research, Princeton University; HTML version, Population Index -on the Web ( : accessed 22 Jan 2015).
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