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No reason to close death records

It will surely come as no surprise to Americans in this unending interminable election season that the entire nation is — and our politicians are — occasionally hoodwinked.

On no topic have they and we been more misled than on the topic of the records of death in this country, and as genealogists, researchers, and family historians, we are among those paying the highest price for having fallen for it.

The documentary evidence that there is no justification for closing death records is mounting rapidly. And that evidence exists, in part, because we fell for it: closing the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) — the Death Master File (DMF) in government-speak — in the budget deal of 2013 led to the collection of data that shows pretty clearly that — surprise surprise (insert sarcasm icon of choice)– there is no good reason for closing death records.

data-accessYou may recall — The Legal Genealogist surely does1 — the agonizing debates that led up to our losing access to the SSDI three years ago. Social Security numbers (SSNs) from genealogy sites that used the SSDI were being used, we were told, to file fraudulent tax returns, disrupt people’s financial lives, and cost the government millions of dollars.

And Fred Moss, writing for the Records Preservation and Access Committee blog, aptly summarizes the bill of goods that the Congress was sold at that time. Congress was told, and it believed (or allowed itself to accept), that:

1. The DMF/SSDI was a substantial source of SSNs used in filing fraudulent tax returns.

2. SSNs of deceased individuals need to be protected in the same ways we safeguard those of the living.

3. Simple fix (Silver Bullet?) – Just limit access to DMF

4. Unstated assumption: Nothing would be lost by closing this resource.

5. Unspecified Assertion: Alternative sources exist for DMF data.2

We’re now three years along in closing access to the SSDI/DMF and guess what?

Not one bit of that bill of goods turns out to be true.

It turns out — as we had all said at the time — that identity thieves don’t particularly want the social security identifiers of dead people at all. They’re trying to get and use the SSNs of living people instead. Letting the whole world know when someone has died works to reduce identity theft, not increase it, so closing death records isn’t any kind of a magic bullet.

More importantly, there are terrible losses in many ways from not having access to death data: not just financial losses, but losses to medical researchers who can’t track subjects in research studies to correlate causes of death with diseases and exposures to toxic substances; losses to medical genealogists trying to track family health histories; losses to those seeking to identify the lost — military dead and John Does — to repatriate their remains.

And no, as any good genealogist could have told the Congress (and we sure tried to tell them…) — there really aren’t any good alternative sources for this sort of data.

The bottom line: it’s time to open death data. All death data. Death certificates at the state level as well as death information held by the federal government. There is no privacy interest served in not disclosing that someone has died. There are many interests that are served in ensuring that the fact of death is known.

Let’s keep on top of this issue, as genealogists, as family historians, as researchers. Just because Congress was sold a bill of goods in the past doesn’t mean we have to keep paying that bill.

I repeat, there’s a bottom line here: it’s time to open death data. All death data.


  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Vote looms on SSDI closure,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 31 Oct 2016). See also ibid., “SSDI: The fat lady sings,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Dec 2013 and “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013.
  2. Fred Moss, “Closing Death Records Is Just Dead Wrong!,” Records Preservation and Access Committee blog, posted 28 Oct 2016 ( : accessed 31 Oct 2016).
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