Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Death certificates and informants

By now you should already know that I love death certificates.  They are loaded with evidence and many times that evidence is wrong which makes it all the more fun.  What some people don’t realize is that there is normally TWO informants on a death certificate, the physician that witnessed the death and the person that provided the background info.  I wanted to talk a little bit about the physician.

If you obtain a copy of a death certificate from the state health department the document is considered to be an ORIGINAL as long as you are confident it represents the original accurately and that it hasn’t been altered/tampered with in any way which is usually the case.

The date of death is DIRECT evidence because it directly answers the question, “When did Mortimer Snerd” die?

But is the information PRIMARY, SECONDARY or UNDETERMINED? It depends.  Was the physician actually present when the person died or was he going on information provided by someone else? You might think this is a bit nit picky but not really.  It can contribute to an error.

Fast forward to when I was a deputy sheriff.  When someone died at home a law enforcement officer would be dispatched to the house.  The LEO would observe the scene, observe the body and conduct interviews. If it appeared that the person had died of natural causes the LEO would call the family doctor and ask him if he was willing to sign the death certificate.  If he knew the patient well enough that he was comfortable with it, he would say yes.  The body would then go to the funeral home.  The doctor would never see the dead body but would sign the death certificate as the attending physician. 

When you are looking at a death certificate pay attention to when the physician states he attended the deceased as well as what date he states he last saw the deceased.  If you are really lucky, the doctor will make some sort of notation if he was not in attendance or if no one was in attendance when the person died.  Many times the blanks won’t be filled in at all and then you won’t even know for sure.  This is just something you need to think about if something doesn’t quite add up.

 

Copyright © 2015 Michele Simmons Lewis

9 comments:

  1. Excellent points Michele. Thanks.

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  2. Very good post! You also need to take the cause of death into consideration. The cause of death was given as Alzheimer's. I was very close to the person who died and I know for a fact that her real diagnosis was vascular dementia and Parkinson's, based on her neurologist's evaluation. The doctor who signed the death certificate was her local GP.

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  3. Interesting thoughts. I was the informant when my mother died and when I received the death certificate from the county, her mother's maiden name was spelled FITGERALD rather than FITZGERALD. I've wondered if I should somehow get it corrected.

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    1. Whether or not you can get it amended depends on the state, the length of time that has passed and who is trying to make the correction. In some states it can only be the spouse and not children. Some states the funeral director can appeal. Some states there is a time limit for corrections. I would contact the state vitals office and explain the situation and then they can advise you.

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    2. Thanks, Michele. I should have looked into it when I first received the death certificate but I guess I just couldn't face it at the time. Now that it's been more than a year, the cost is $23 in the State of California. But it's the least I can do for my mother and future descendants.

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  4. What if a death certificate has no cause of death? My uncle, Stamey Thomas Craver, died on Nov. 7, 1918, in Forsyth Co. NC and there is no cause of death! His death certificate is on Ancestry.com. I have searched the newspapers (online & microfilm) for his name and also for accidents, went to the NC Archives and looked at the original death certificate, asked family members (who say he was hit by a train - but I could find no recent train accidents in the area). I even called the medical examiner's office but they say they don't have the coroner's records from back then. I looked at his tombstone (in person). Any ideas?

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    1. I would check with the county courthouse. Many times it is the probate court that holds the coroner's reports (depends on the state and I am not sure about NC). If he was hit by a train it was in the newspaper, I am sure of that. I would go to this website http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/search/titles/ and plug in NC for that year and then narrow by location. Find all the newspapers that were in publication in 1918 and then track them down. The Library of Congress will tell you where to look. You are so lucky to have an exact date which will make looking at the newspapers so much easier.

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  5. My great grandather's death certificate has conflicting information. He died after a fall (i.e. he jumped) from a train in Michigan. At the top of the certificate is the date of death: Nov 25, 1902. The coroner signed off and stated he attended to the body on Nov 26 and that this is when death occurred. Fortunately, I have a newspaper obituary that states the date of death as Nov 25. Do you think someone simply wrote the correct date at the top instead of correcting the coroner?

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