That Infamous Informant
by Cav. Anthony Lascio
As genealogists, we
have all had the opportunity to examine the death certificates of our Italian
ancestors who passed from this earth on U.S. soil. I suppose most of us have seen at least several of those
documents whether they be parents, grandparents, great grandparents or the
siblings of the preceding.
There is nothing
more frustrating than anticipating the arrival of one of those documents through
the mail, only to discover the information contained therein does not agree with
data we have acquired from other sources. Any number of researchers have been perplexed by conflicting
dates, places and even names contained on various “official” record sources.
Imagine, if you can, a U.S. census record clearly listing a birthday (or
an age), a birthplace, or the surname very distinguishably spelled, only to
discover upon the receipt of still another “official” document the data is
in conflict. You wonder how can
plow through years of dedicated research, they rely on those so called
“official” documents for dependability, i.e., census records, naturalization
papers, passenger arrival manifests, alien registration forms, marriage licenses
and yes, death certificates. When some of the aforementioned fail to agree with
each other, it can be disappointing, frustrating and mind boggling.
problem with those death certificates? Well,
the problem isn’t the certificate, it’s what I have been referring to for
years; something I call “the infamous informant”. Who is this infamous informant and why are they the problem?
Here’s my view of the situation.
When someone dies,
particularly when that “someone” was foreign born, a cloak of mystery
surrounds that individual’s history. Simply
stated, the individual who is called upon at that emotional moment of personal
tragedy, a death, is asked by a hospital or a funeral director for the facts
pertaining to the life of the deceased. Let’s
examine a typical medical certificate of death from the 1940's.
The informant is asked: birth date of deceased; age at death; birthplace;
father’s name and birthplace; mother’s maiden name and birthplace; name and
age of spouse; occupation; citizenship; how long in USA; in the Armed Forces;
social security number?
Now, you say,
that’s no problem. Anyone can
answer those basic questions, after all, the informant is a close relative who
would know the right answers. Maybe
yes, maybe no.
that informant. If the respondent
is a spouse, an adult child or a sibling, one would expect those questions to
pose no problem. However, what if,
due to the circumstances of the death, the informant was a friend, neighbor or
more distant relative. Then would
those simple questions be so easy to answer?
Does it ever happen when the informant is a less knowledgeable person?
It sure does.
Also remember that
fifty years ago or more, there were still spouses who spoke little or no
English, therefore, an English speaking friend or neighbor was asked to take on
the informant’s role. They may
have had little or no knowledge of the deceased, which clearly became evident
when the death certificate responses were completed.
A researcher like you or me, fifty, seventy-five, or even one hundred
years later, reads the document today and says........”what?”
Then there’s the
matter of one’s personality or in
today’s vernacular, privacy. Many
emigrant Italians, or other Europeans for that matter, kept secrets even from
their nearest and dearest family members. They
distorted their age; they were dishonest about their citizenship; they provided
a general, not specific place of birth; they even “forgot” the names of
their parents. So, even a son or
daughter informant would respond to the questioner with the scantest of
information, and much of that was not factual, through no fault of the
What many of us
experience by perusing a death certificate is a series of responses to
questions by an individual who either did not know because of unfamiliarity with
the deceased or did not know because of the forgetfulness or deceit on the part
of the deceased. In either case, that “official” document which we rely on
so heavily, may or may not contain the correct vital statistics we expect.
This is why I coined the phrase, that infamous informant.
How does one
overcome the inaccuracy of some certificates of death?
Trial and error. One document by itself, a death certificate or any other
document, should not be worthy of our total trustworthiness.
A competent genealogy researcher will compare the data of several
documents of different types to determine an accurate birth date, place of
birth, even surname spelling. If at
first you don’t succeed....da-da, da-da, da-da.
On second thought,
maybe we should call that provider of death certificate information...........
the dreaded MISinformant?
© PIP Chapter 1, 2003 ~ Webmaster: LPRoots@yahoo.com ~ page last updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003