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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:

  • Bible records and other family papers
  • Court records (wills and administrations)
  • Census records (mortality schedules)
  • Military service and pension records
  • Newspapers (death notices, obituaries, and news articles)
  • Cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions

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

  • Find A Grave. Search by: Name, location, claim to fame.
  • OCFA — Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid features a database of more than two million interments in Ontario (Canada). 
  • Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. Just outside Cambridge, England, there is a little piece of the USA. In honor of her people who gave their lives during World War II.
  • Graveyards of Chicago
  • City of the Silent for taphophiles lovers of cemeteries as cultural artifacts.
  • Haunted Cemeteries in the USA.
    Enter if you dare and explore these sites. Every April 5th and November 1st a beautiful woman in a black satin dress appears and lays flowers on the grave on John Edward Cameron, who is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Central City, Colorado. Once 12 people gathered together at Cameron's grave on November 1st to see the ghost. At sunset, she appeared as always. Two men tried to grab her, but she flew off and vanished on a hill not far from the cemetery.

Suggested Reading & References

  • Bouchard, Betty J. Our Silent Neighbors: A Study of Gravestones in the Olde Salem Area. Salem, Mass.: T.B.S. Enterprises, 1991.
  • Chase, Theodore and Laurel K. Gabel. Gravestone Chronicles. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1990.
  • Howe, W.H. Everybody's Book of Epitaphs: Being for the Most Part What the Living Think of the Dead. London: Saxon & Co. Publishers, 1995.
  • Inskeep, Carolee. The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian's Guide to New York City Cemeteries,, 2000.
  • Jones, Mary-Ellen. "Photographing Tombstones: Equipment and Techniques," American Association for State and Local History Technical Leaflet 92, History News, vol. 32, no. 2, Feb. 1977.
  • Kemp, Thomas Jay. International Vital Records Handbook. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1994.
  • Williams, Melvin G. The Last Word: The Lure and Lore of Early New England Graveyards. Boston: Oldstone Enterprises, 1973.

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)

  • International Vital Records Handbook by Thomas Jay Kemp
  • Vital Records Information for United States
  • VitalChek Network
  • Family History Library
  • USGenWeb Tombstone Project
  • UKGenWeb Archives: World War I Deaths, Kirkintillach News (extracts)
  • Swedish Vital Records: Records for Lindesberg, Orebro, Sweden
  • Spanish Baptismal Records: Roman Catholic church in Albanchez, Almeria, Andalucia, Spain
  • MediterraneanGenWeb Archives: American section of the Protestant Cemetery in Istanbul, Turkey
  • SouthAMGenWeb Archives: North American Cemetery (Campo) in Sao Paulo
  • CaribbeanGenWeb Archives: Jamaican cemetery records and wills
  • Association for Gravestone Studies
    • AGS online bookstore
    • AGS computer programfor recording gravestones and cemeteries
  • Find A Grave
  • OCFA — Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid
  • Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial
  • Graveyards of Chicago
  • City of the Silent
  • Haunted Cemeteries in the USA
  • New England Historic Genealogical Society
  • Shops
  • Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Ordering Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates from England and Wales by Mark Howells
  • Monumental Inscriptions for Family Historians by Rod Neep
  • Civil Registration in England and Wales
  • International Jewish Cemetery Project
  • Cemeteries: Optima philosophia et sapientia est mediatio mortis
  • Cyndi's List — Cemeteries & Funeral Homes
  • Cyndi's List — Obituaries
  • Cyndi's List — Death Records
  • Cyndi's List — U.S. Vital Records