Search billions of records on

Tony Lascio 2cropped.jpg (25260 bytes)
Cavaliere Anthonly Lascio

Cav. Anthony Lascio Chapter - PIP 1

pipbmp.gif (16907 bytes)

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 this be?

When genealogists 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.

What’s the 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.

Let’s explore 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 informant.

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:  ~  page last updated on Tuesday, April 22, 2003