The Social Security Death Index used to be the go-to place for genealogists to find information on those who have died recently. Unfortunately, Congress has now removed our access for the most recent three years, providing us with major problems in trying to find deaths in this time period. Indexes to death records are not always available online. And obituaries are not published as frequently as they used to be.
I was recently contacted by a friend. He had seen posts on Facebook indicating that the wife of his ex might have passed away, but he wanted to be certain before sending condolences. Since the death would have been in New York City last year, accessing a death record was out. No obituary could be found. So, the question became “Where to look next?” Here are five resources I checked, ultimately leading to confirmation of the death.
1. Funeral Homes
As newspapers charge more and more to publish obituaries, funeral homes and mortuaries are taking their place as publishers of these notices. While most have websites that leave this information open to search engines, not all do. Look for funeral homes in the area where your subject lived, and check for obituaries and death notices there.
2. Probate Records
When someone dies owning property, a record of the estate is usually created in the probate courts. Many localities have made indexes for modern records available online. Check these to see if a person’s estate has been entered into probate. When dealing with common names, one has to be very careful to use more evidence to confirm that the person is the subject of the search. You might need to view the probate record to determine if the identification is correct.
3. Land Records
Nowadays, many people create trusts to minimize tax penalties on estates. Unfortunately, these trusts can escape registration in the probate system, removing that as a resource for us. However, if your subject owned real estate, you may be able to find information there. Many localities are making not only their deed indexes accessible online, but also images of the records themselves. Look for information in these transactions. Often a surviving spouse will sell the property, and there will be a notation that the other spouse is deceased. Survivors will also often take out a mortgage, or refinance an existing mortgage, on the property. This can give you evidence of the death of one of the property owners.
4. Find a Grave/Billion Graves
More and more, contributors are adding information to these sites about recent burials. These are not always accompanied by photographs, but often have at least bare bones information on them. Some comes from death notices in small community newspapers that might run death notices or news items that are more difficult to find in the massive results of a search engine.
5. Church Notices
This is the record that actually lead to the confirmation of my subject’s death. Funerals rarely get notices in church bulletins because they usually happen too quickly. Depending on the denomination, however, there might be a later scheduled memorial service. In the Catholic church that my subject was a member of, a mass was said in her memory. While it does not confirm the exact date of death, it does show that she was deceased by the time the mass was said. Another clue can be the date of such memorial masses, which often occur near to the anniversary of the death.