Ways To Go: Death Certificates
Ten methods you can use to find out more about your ancestor’s death
You have your ancestor’s death certificate, but what do you do next? The internet can help you find out a great deal more about your ancestor’s death providing you know the right questions to ask and the right places to look.
- What exactly was the cause of death?
According to her death certificate, my great aunt, Lillie Symes, died on 15 January 1894 at the age of thirteen months from ‘pertussis’ (more commonly known as whooping cough) and broncho-pneumonia. Your ancestor’s death certificate will give you the cause of death in medical language. For a layman’s translation of medical terminology, try using an online medical dictionary such as http://www.online-medical-dictionary.org/. Archaic medical terms for diseases can be investigated at: http://www.antiquusmorbus.com/Index.htm.
- Where did my ancestor die?
The death certificate will give the address of the place where your ancestor died. In many cases, like that of Lillie Symes, this will have been at home. Lillie died at 29 Llanfair Street, Ancoats, Manchester – a poor, industrial district of the great city. There are numerous websites that can give you more historical information about the town, county and region from which your ancestor came. Try entering the relevant place name at www.visionofbritain.org.uk or www.british-history.ac.uk. Local history societies can provide more detailed information about specific areas, see www.local-history.co.uk/groups/.
If your ancestor died in hospital, it may be possible (in a small number of cases) to find out more. The Historic Hospitals Admissions Records Project at http://hharp.org/, for example, is a free online database of admissions to various childrens’ hospitals in London and Glasgow between 1852 and 1914. At this site, you may be lucky enough to see your ancestor’s full handwritten case notes, as well as dates of admittance. If your ancestor died in the workhouse or other institution, you should check the website of the National Archives www.nationalarchives.org to see whether any records exist for those institutions and, if so, where they are kept.
- How (and for how long) did my ancestor suffer?
According to the medical website www.whoopingcough.net, Lillie Symes’ illness may have developed over weeks and perhaps months. An ordinary cough would have developed into intense bouts of coughing – paroxysms of one or two minutes duration in which the little child would have gone red, her body tense, her eyes bulging. She may have had up to a hundred bouts of coughing a day, each one ending in a desperate attempt to take in a breath and with it (probably, though not necessarily) the infamous, dreadful ‘backdraw’ or whoop.
There are now websites dedicated to describing the symptoms of most diseases. Simply google the name of the disease in which you are interested. Alternatively, the following general NHS site is very useful and can be searched by disease at http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Pages/hub.aspx..
- Was there an epidemic at the time?
A general search on the internet under the terms ‘whooping cough’ and ‘epidemic’ informed me that in the nineteenth century, epidemics of the disease came every three or four years in Britain. Some sources suggest that eight in ten children in the period had whooping cough before they were five. In Scotland alone in the year before Lillie’s death, 131 children died from whooping cough in the month of April and 145 in May.
If your ancestor died from a serious contagious disease such as typhus or cholera, check to see if there was an epidemic at the time of his or her death. You can see a timeline of epidemic diseases in the UK at www.rmhh.co.uk/medical.html. Ireland faced a typhus epidemic in 1817-19 (for example) and there were outbreaks of cholera in London in 1832-3 and 1853-4.. Graveyards with large collections of gravestones from the same year might indicate that there was an epidemic of some kind as might parish burial registers with many entries close together. Local libraries may also have information about the timing of outbreaks of certain diseases in the locality.
- Was a vaccine available?
If the disease was infectious, check to see whether or not immunisation was available at the time of your ancestor’s death. Useful websites include http://www.askbaby.com/timeline-vaccinations.htm and http://www.nhs.uk/Planners/vaccinations/Pages/historyofvaccination.aspx. The fact that a vaccine existed at a certain time does not, of course, mean that your ancestor will have had access to it but having this information can give you an idea of how common or uncommon the cause of your ancestor’s death was.
Unfortunately for her, Lillie Symes’ death preceded the discovery of the whooping cough bacterium (‘Bordatella pertussis’) by twelve years. It was not until 1948-1954 that a vaccine was tested by scientists from the Whooping Cough Immunisation Committee of the Medical Research Council and then made available. Prior to its introduction by the NHS in 1957, whooping cough was still affecting approximately 100,000 people a year in England and Wales.
- What pharmaceutical treatments were around?
Find out how a doctor might have treated your ancestor. The website of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society http://www.olib.rpsgb.org.uk/informationresources/museum/ can be searched by the name of the disease and gives information about medications including embrocations, liniments, and inhalations at different points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries etc. Remember that pharmaceutical treatment was only possible for the better off of our ancestors.
Despite the fact that it was widely acknowledged that there was ‘no specific cure for whooping cough and that no drug could check the onset nor stop the progress of the disease’ there were a large number of embrocations, liniments and inhalants available on the market at the time of Lillie’s death. These included Bevington’s drops and Dr Bow’s Liniment (thought to contain ammoniated camphor liniment, belladonna liniment, soap liniment, strong ammonia and tincture of opium).
- What home remedies were available?
Unless your ancestor was very well off, his or her last illness was probably treated (not with expensive pharmaceuticals or vaccines) but with home remedies passed down through the family. Medical advice books of the time (which can often be picked up cheaply in second hand bookshops or online at sites such as www.abe.com) can give an insight into what passed for good home nursing.
Information in the Sunlight Year Book 1898 suggests that Lillie Symes would have been nursed in a sitting position, efforts would have been made to clear the mucus from her nose and throat, and her intake or food and drink would have been fussed over. Homemade medication might have involved a ‘liniment made of one teaspoonful of oil of cloves, two teaspoonfuls of oil of amber, and two tablespoonfuls of camphorated oil well shaken up together in a bottle, [and] rubbed into the pit of the stomach and into the spine every night.’ Teas, garlic and honey were also recommended as methods of cutting the phlegm.
- Who was in attendance at my ancestor’s death?
The death certificate will include the name of the person who informed the registrar of your ancestor’s death. In Lillie Symes’ case, this was her mother, Elizabeth, who was present at the death. If the carer is not obviously a relation, it’s worth looking up the name on one of the online census sites for the area in which your ancestor died. You may find that the informant was a paid nurse, a neighbour, or a daily help who lived nearby. Amongst other things, this information may help you understand how well or poorly off your ancestor was at the time of his or her death.
- Will the death be recorded anywhere else?
Announcements of death, funeral notices and obituaries may all also appear in local newspapers up to several weeks after your ancestor’ death. Local newspapers may appear on microfiche in your local or city library, but bear in mind that the deaths of ‘ordinary’ people (especially babies such as Lillie) are unlikely to have appeared in newspapers until the early twentieth century. However, if your ancestor’s death certificate informs you that he or she died in an accident or other dramatic event (for example, a pit disaster or a house fire), check local newspapers of the time for an account of the tragedy.
Family deaths may also be recorded in personal documents such as family bibles, diaries, and letters.
- How can I find out where my ancestor was buried?
If your ancestor died at or near home, he or she will probably have been buried in the churchyard of the main Church in the parish nearest to where he lived or in the nearest municipal cemetery. Remember that Non-conformists, Catholics and Jews will have been buried in the graveyards of their own places of worship rather than in the precincts of the local Anglican church.
Burials were recorded in parish or burial registers which may still be kept in the local place of worship or which may have been deposited in the County Record Office. Some parish registers have been transcribed and are available to view online, see: http://www.parishregister.co.uk/ or one of the commercial family history sites such as www.findmypast.co.uk. Coverage of parish registers online is patchy but getting better all the time.
Once you have located the correct register, look for your ancestor’s name at a time about a week after the date of death on the death certificate. An entry in a burial register may simply note the name of the deceased and the date of burial. Occasionally, however, there may be more information such as the name of the spouse of the deceased (or even those of his or her parents), his or her occupation, abode and even cause of death.
The information from some burial registers for big cities now appears online at local government sites. Lillie Symes’ burial record is given at the Manchester City Council site (see full address below). She was buried five days after her death on 20th January 1894 in an unmarked communal grave (plot number given on the site) which eventually included the bodies of at least ten other non-related people.
Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Jerger, Jeanette L. A Medical Miscellany for Genealogists, Heritage, 2009
Eastoe, Jane, Victorian Pharmacy, Remedies and Recipes. Pavilion, 2010.
Flanders, Judith Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. HarperCollins, 2003
Other Useful Websites
http://www.cyndislist.com/medical.htm#Diseases. Gateway to many medical sites useful to genealogists.
http://www.bl.uk/timeline The British Library history timeline provides an opportunity to compare the key events from each historical decade with advances in science, medicine and technology.
http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/victorians/health/victorianhealth.html A multimedia site dedicated to the Victorians and their health
http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/200032/deaths_funerals_and_cremations/1064/burial_records Manchester City Council site recording burials and cremations in several Manchester cemeteries from 1837 onwards.
www.ancestor-search.info/SRC-NationalBurial.htm Information about the National Burial Index now available to buy on CD ROM.
Keywords: European ancestors, ancestry, family history, genealogy, Europe, England, death, death certificates