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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 4:  Vital Records — Death, Tombstones and Cemeteries


I came I know not w[h]ence. I go I know not whither.
Grave marker of Charles A. Miller, Vineland, New Jersey
(Louis B. Schafer, Tombstone of Your Ancestors, Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1991, 105).

Vital records — birth, marriage and divorce, and death — are the foundations of genealogical research. What we learn from the vital records of a person's days on this earth provides the framework for our search for other records that may illuminate his life and times and tell us who he was. The end of a life marks the beginning of our research. The U.S.A does not have a nationwide system of vital records registration and, with the exception of the New England states, where many towns have kept vital records from their beginnings, the states did not attempt to keep centralized vital records until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For details of the dates for which centralized vital records are available for many countries and for the U.S. by state, the forms needed to request such records, and the addresses, telephone, and fax numbers of the records keepers, consult International Vital Records Handbook, by Thomas Jay Kemp. On the Web, visit Vital Records Information for United States for information about birth, death or marriage certificates.

Also try the VitalChek Network.In the absence of centralized death records for earlier years, the American researcher should determine what original vital records exist at the county and local levels, some of which might have been transferred to state archives, and whether any have been published. When it is possible to consult original records or microfilmed copies of them, it is preferable to do so rather than to rely upon published abstracts, transcriptions, or indexes, which might be incomplete and almost certainly contain errors, no matter how conscientious the transcriber. However, published abstracts, transcriptions, and indexes provide valuable assistance as finding aids to the original records.The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah, has microfilmed records from many countries and U.S. states, and continues to do so. In some cases, the microfilmed records are all that remain as evidence of records lost to the ravages of war and natural disaster. Researchers have access to most of the microfilmed holdings of the FHL through local Family History Centers (FHC).

To replace or supplement civil death records, other sources include:

USGenWeb Tombstone Project

In the UKGenWeb Archives there are a large number of files (by letter of alphabet) of World War I Deaths, Kirkintillach News (extracts)

Swedish Vital Records. Records for Lindesberg, Orebro, Sweden are being placed online in a searchable format. 

Spanish Baptismal Records. Digital images of the actual registry entries covering 200 years of baptismal records of the Roman Catholic church in Albanchez, Almeria, Andalucia, Spain are being placed online in a searchable format.

In the MediterraneanGenWeb Archives there are burials in the American section of the Protestant Cemetery in Istanbul, Turkey

In the SouthAMGenWeb Archives there is a text file for the North American Cemetery (Campo) in Sao Paulo

In the CaribbeanGenWeb Archives (Islands of the West Indies) there are, for example, Jamaican cemetery records and wills.

Association for Gravestone Studies
AGS online bookstore
AGS computer program for recording gravestones and cemeteries

Virtual Cemetery Tour


Suggested Reading & References


Additional Resources


Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

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