Death and burial information can be found in numerous places: church records, vital records, directories, biographies, family Bibles, newspapers, hospital and medical records, cemeteries, tombstones, military service records, funeral director records, and special census schedules just to name a few. For information about other types of records, see the other genealogy research guides. Some basic questions and answers concerning death and burial records are:
Where are the best short essays that describe death and burial information?
The Source. Social Science and History Department (SSH) 929.1072 So84a2.
The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. SSH 929 G859r.
Pennsylvania Vital Records From the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, Introduction. SSH 929.3748 P384v.
When did the maintenance of death and burial records become required by law in the area of interest?
Ancestry's Red Book. SSH 929.1072 R245b. Use for U.S. vital records. Study the sections on vital records for the area of interest. For records of other countries, see a genealogical guide book for the country of interest in the Social Science and History Department.
Before death records became legally required in the area of interest, church records, Bible records, and cemetery/tombstone records are usually the best sources of death and burial information.
What church or cemetery made a record of the death or burial?
Determine where the person lived, then see the lists of churches and cemeteries in local directories, guidebooks, and histories written around the time of interest. Also see denominational and individual church histories. These resources are available through keyword searching on the Free Library online catalog or by making inquiries at the Social Science and History Department reference desk. Some useful tools are:
Religion on the American Frontier, 1783-1840: a Collection of Source Materials, 4 vols. Baptists - Education, Philosophy and Religion Department (EPR)/STX 286 Sw36b. Congregationalists - EPR/STX 285.8 Sw36c. Methodists - EPR/STX 287.6 Sw36m. Presbyterians - EPR/STX 285.1 Sw36p.
Places of Worship: Exploring their History. EPR 291.6507 W722p. Good bibliography and lists of denominational resources.
Are the church and cemetery records I need still in existence? If so, where are they?
Generally speaking, church records are accessible in the following formats: published records, microfilmed records, and original records. The older the church or cemetery record, the more likely it will be published or microfilmed and located at a local historical or genealogical society or at a denominational religious archive. The more recent the record, the more likely it will be in its original form and in the possession of the church or cemetery where the event took place. Writing or calling local repositories may be the only way to determine if certain records exist and if they are accessible. The following documents list points of contact:
Cemeteries of the U.S.: a Guide to Contact Information for U.S. Cemeteries and Their Records. SSH 929.5025 C332o.
The Genealogist's Address Book. SSH 929.1025 B444g.
The Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States in Canada. SSH 906 Am31dh.
The Source. SSH 929.1072 So84e.
Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. EPR 206 Y32o.
Directory of Church Libraries. EPR 027.67 R612d.
For a listing of the "classic" books that contain published church and vital records, see American and British Genealogy and Heraldry. SSH/STX 016.9291 F472a.
For a state by state list of "in-print" books that contain published church and vital records, see Genealogical and Local History Books in Print. SSH/STX 016.9291 G286a.
Other sources to check for published records are:
Check List of Historical Records Survey Publications. SSH/STX 015.73 C4365c.
A Survey of American Church Records SSH/STX 016.9293 K635s.
National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. SSH/STX 016.091 N213u.
National Register of Microfilm Masters. SSH/STX 017 N213r.
What is the best way to find early Pennsylvania church records?
Genealogist's Guide to Pennsylvania Records. SSH 929.1072 G286g. Lists the genealogical holdings of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) by Pennsylvania counties as of the late 1970s - 1980s. Church records received since then are listed in the HSP card catalog. The actual church records are at HSP.
Clint's Pennsylvania County Series, a series of books that list genealogical resources by Pennsylvania county. For example, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Area Key. SSH 929.3748 C617bu. Similar guides for most nearby Pennsylvania counties are also available.
Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research in Pennsylvania lists genealogical resources by Pennsylvania county. SSH 016.9748 h671g3.
Who is the custodian of public death records for each of the United States, what do they have, and how do I contact them?
Where to Write for Vital Records. Lists vital record offices by state.
International Vital Records Handbook has reproducible forms that can be used to request vital records. SSH 929.3025 K32i3.
Who is the custodian of Philadelphia public death records and how do I contact them?
Death records from 1 July 1860 to 30 June 1915 are at The Philadelphia City Archives, 3101 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. (215) 685-9401.
Death records after 30 June 1915 are available from The Division of Vital Records, 101 S. Mercer Street, PO Bx. 1528, New Castle, PA 16103. (412) 656-3100.
Cemetery returns from 1803 to 30 June 1860 are available on microfilm at the Philadelphia City Archives. These returns are available at the Free Library in paper form; ask for the Index to Registration of Deaths: City of Philadelphia 1803 - Jun 1860, GPD Gov Pub STATES/P38-1224.
Philadelphia death records for the period 1 January 1906 to 30 June 1915 can be found at BOTH the Philadelphia City Archives and at the PA Vital Record Office at New Castle.
Who is the custodian of public death records for other Pennsylvania counties and how do I contact them?
In general, the Division of Vital Records at New Castle has death records for all counties since January 1906.
At the county level there are many variations in death record holdings both before 1906 and after. See Vital Records Information - Pennsylvania. In many cases, calling the county clerk may be the only way to get a clear picture.
Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP)
Ask for Researching your Family History at the Central Library, a handout available at the Social Science and History reference desk.
FLP does NOT have unpublished vital, church, or cemetery records.
Call numbers for published death records can be determined by making a subject search on the online catalog using the term REGISTERS, then scrolling down to see all of the entries. The most comprehensive are:
Pennsylvania Vital Records From the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 3 vols. SSH 929.3748 P384v. Contains reprints of vital records and tombstone inscriptions from Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine up to 1980 and from Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography up to 1935. For similar articles in the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine after 1980, see annual indexes.
Genealogical Abstracts of Pennsylvania & the Statutes at Large, 1682-1820. SSH 929.3 L749g.
Social Register of Philadelphia, 1898-1977. SSH 917.481 So1. Gives names, maiden names of women, and annual lists of marriages and deaths.
Index to Registration of Deaths: City of Philadelphia 1803 - Jun 1860. Gov Pub STATES/P38-1224.
Notes and Queries; Historical, Biographical, and Genealogical, Relating Chiefly to Interior Pennsylvania SSH 929 N844a.
Deaths in Central Pennsylvania 1889-1920. SSH/STX 929.3 W741d.
Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919. 940.91 P53. Lists military personnel from Philadelphia killed in WWI.
World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing: Pennsylvania. GPD Gov Pub W107.13. Lists military personnel from Pennsylvania killed and missing in WWII.
Lists of American service personnel killed in the Koreanand Vietnam War are available on the Internet. For a list of the names on the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial, see the Vertical Files in the Social Science and History Department at the Free Library.
There are numerous newspaper indexes that list local deaths. These indexes should always be consulted.
For deaths from the mid 1960s to the present, see The Social Security Death Index.
The HSP is a great place to find early Pennsylvania church records, collections of Bible records, cemetery/tombstone records, and funeral director records.
The GSP has many church, cemetery, and tombstone records not available at HSP. Both libraries should be used. The annual indexes in Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine should be reviewed not only for surnames of interest, but also for headings such as Bible Records, Tombstone Inscriptions, Deaths, and other similar topics. FLP, GSP, and HSP have a complete run of the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine in paper form. The GSP has a 100 year index to the Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine and the issues themselves on CD-ROM.
PAR does not make copies of death records or cemetery returns. They will issue a certified typed transcript of the original record for a fee. PAR is the best place to find Philadelphia death records from 1 July 1860 to 30 June 1915. PAR also has microfilm of cemetery returns from 1803 to 30 Jun 1860. Check the PAR inventory for other records such as Coroner's Reports and Potters Field information.
NARA has microfilm copies of the mortality schedules of the federal census of Pennsylvania for the years 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880. Some of these schedules have been extracted and published in book form. Check for these on the NARA bookshelves.
The LDS collection is the largest collection of genealogical material in the world and is worldwide in scope. Numerous microfilm reels of church and public records are available for loan for a nominal fee. A guide for using this collection is available at LDS Family History Centers. Many of the PAR death records described above are available from LDS. Generally speaking, anything that can be borrowed from LDS can be photocopied.