Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Death Certificates for Geneological Purposes

Since the state of Virginia has finally released many death certificates online earlier this year I have been combing through scads of records on Ancestry trying to get all my ancestors' death information safely filed away.

While it may seem at first glance a pretty morbid hobby, this filing away causes of death for people long gone from this world, it has pointed out to me in a real way how very hard life was in the past compared to today.

With the number of ways to be "offed" so numerous and close at hand, say, 100 years ago, keeping a family intact was against the odds.  While divorce was not very common back then, or at least not talked about or admitted to in polite company, death stalked your and my ancestors closely and made widows and orphans of many of your now long dead family members.

Medical care was rudimentary if available at all, so that many illnesses and diseases that are easily survived today took people down at any age.
Especially cruel was dying in childbirth suddenly, at an age when most women are in their prime physically.

And domestic abuse took many men and women as well, because of the social taboo against divorcing a rotten or down right murderous spouse.
Women didn't work as a general rule but kept the home and raised the children so when a mother died, often the children were farmed off to extended family or if none were able to take them in, these young ones landed in orphanages.
Often a widower would remarry as soon as possible to provide a new mother to take care of his children.

If the man of the house died his widow and kids were left destitute with no source of income. If the widow was employable she went to work(and made barely enough to survive let alone raise her children)and the children were left with relatives or on the door step of a charity house/orphanage.
If a widow was lucky enough to find a new husband quickly many times he didn't want to take on providing for her dead husband's children and they were still farmed out to relatives or an orphanage.  It is cruel but true that often widows had to make a choice between her children and her new husband and due to having to survive themselves, the widows had to choose the new husbands over their own children.
Heck I know someone younger than myself who found out as an adult after her mother died that she had a half-sibling she never knew about.  Her mother had been married before marrying her own father and he refused to raise that child so the mother had nothing to do with her first child and never told her subsequent children she had with this second husband about her previous life and family.
Ah, family secrets.......

And with the death certificates available for viewing I have found my first murder/suicide.
Not on my direct line but in a family related by marriage.
So sad and knowing the details now it fully fleshes out some of these folks as real people which makes these deaths even more tragic.

Sometimes this genealogy stuff cuts right to your heart.




  1. I have found every "condition/circumstance " you described in my ancestors' lives. Somewhere, probably dead by now, is a man whose mother died at childbirth. His young father gave the child to the dead wife's mother to rear. That was only two generations back.

  2. I find this post very much fun to read. I have a cousin who did all the leg work and hunting through all records and archived documents, so I don't have to. While doing it he uncovered a long held family secret. Seems his own father had a short lived first marriage no one had ever spoken of. When he asked about it his dad's living sister (Mom) confirmed it happened and now we all know binge drinking and impulse marrying the cocktail waitress is just not a good thing to do.

  3. I had a friend who worked for a document storage company. One of her first accounts many years ago had to do with scanning death certificates. Lots of folks had the cause of death as "Rough on Rats." She came to find out that was the name of a popular rat poison and apparently lots of people drank it by mistake.

    The things you learn!

  4. Remind me to fly out and help you with your daughters wedding..... because I have not had enough fun yet;)


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