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Yet another data source

All of us who research family history — The Legal Genealogist included — tend to get a little … um … irreverent in describing certain events and record types that are near and dear to our hearts.

As in the records of folks as they are hatched, matched and dispatched.

Or, more formally, birth, marriage and death records.

These vital records are among the most valuable we can ever hope to find, and yet finding them can often be — to put it mildly — a challenge here in this very young nation with its odd combination of a very cavalier attitude towards vital recordation in its early days (“records? we don’t need no steeenking records!”) and a very protective attitude towards vital records today (“nope, you can’t see that for 125 years”).

So… we try to find workarounds. And one of the very best kinds of workarounds, yet one of the least utilized, are the records of funeral homes and mortuaries.

In so many cases, funeral home and mortuary records may exist for time periods either before vital records were required — or before they were fully kept. In my own family, for example, there is no death record for my grandparents’ first-born child, my aunt Ruth, born in August 1917. But there is a record of her burial, meticulously kept by the funeral home in Iowa Park, Texas, where she was buried in February 1918.1

The records vary widely in type and content — some may be nothing more than index cards with the name of the person interred and who paid for the plot, while others may include tons of information including everything that might have ended up in the obituary and more. What doesn’t vary: they’re private records, not public, so access can be a bear.2

What you hope for, in looking for these records, is that they’ve been turned over to (rescued by!) or indexed by a local genealogical or historical society and are now in the manuscript collection. So always always check with the local societies to see what they have.3

At a minimum, you can hope for an index. Case in point: I came across a set of records that might help those who had early ancestors in San Diego as I was preparing to head out to San Diego for this weekend’s Fall seminar of the San Diego Genealogical Society (and today is the last day to register online… just sayin’…).

The “San Diego Burial Permits, Bradley & Woolman Mortuary, 1913 – 1916,” were published in volume 33, number 1, of San Diego Leaves & Saplings, the quarterly journal of the San Diego Genealogical Society, and the “San Diego Burial Permits, Bradley & Woolman Mortuary, 1917 – 1919,” followed in volume 34, no. 1.

And although these records are “just” an index, they’re the very best kind of index possible: an index prepared by the local genealogical society, the people who know the local families the best and are likely to have made the fewest mistakes in putting the index together.

If you’re a member of the San Diego Genealogical Society, you can access the index online. Otherwise, you’ll need to find a copy at a library… or order a back issue ($7.50 each, plus shipping).

Other mortuary records available from SDGS include the records of the H. E. Carmichael & Co., 1917 – 1920, in San Diego Leaves & Saplings vol. 29, no. 1; Johnson-Saum Mortuary Records, 1869 – 1888, in vol. 1, no. 1; and Johnson, Saum & Noble Mortuary Records, in vol. 12, no. 4.

There are many more burial and cemetery records available from SDGS, published either in Leaves & Saplings or as separate items. Just as a few examples:

• All Saints Episcopal Cemetery Tombstone Inscriptions
• Burials on Monument Hill
• Escondido Cemetery Records 1883 – 1960
• Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Parish Register No. 1, Burials, 1869 – 1887
• Mission San Luis Rey Burial Log
• Mount Hope Cemetery Burial Records, Book 1, 1869 – 1909

Bottom line: always always check with the local societies to see what records may exist and where they may be found. And make a point, specifically, of asking about funeral home and mortuary records.


Image: “A white hearse parked on the side of the Bradley & Woolman mortuary,” used by permission of the San Diego History Center.

  1. Dutton Funeral Home (Iowa Park, Texas), Record of Funeral, Baby Cottrell, 22 February 1918; digital copy privately held by Judy G. Russell.
  2. See Mark Barker, “Researching Funeral Home Records: A Genealogical Tool,” PDF online, TNGenWeb Project, reprinted at Denny-Loftis Genealogy ( : accessed 6 Sep 2017).
  3. For other ideas, see Kimberly Powell, “Find Family History in Funeral Home Records,” ThoughtCo ( : accessed 6 Sep 2017).
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