Updated: Feb 23
When genealogists start researching, they find vital records (birth, marriage, death records) online and may look no further for other supporting documents. You can trust the government record, right? The thrill of the hunt takes over as a researcher quickly gathers documents that used to take days or weeks to find.
I came across a perfect example of why we need to read EVERY item on a document and look for other independent sources to support the claims on the "official" document.
My Research Question - When did Chester Fern Strong of Pine Village, Indiana die?
Do you see it? When did Chester die? His date of death is typed 14 Nov 1977. 1977 - 1894 (his birth year) is 83, so the dates work. Did Chester die in 1977? Did you note this in your tree and move on because it is an 'official' document? Is Chester a collateral line that you are just documenting because the death certificate popped up in your hints?
Look at the top. There are two numbers that begin with '87'. You may not know how Indiana numbered certificates through the years, but this looks like a code with the year of death or year the certificate was created used as part of the numbering system.
Let's look further down the document...
What's with this? He was buried in 1987? Could this be a reburial? Would they issue a 2nd certificate for a reburial? No, they would not. When did Dr. Schleck sign the certificate? 1987! The Health Officer received it in 1987!
Did Chester lay unnoticed, but dead for 10 years?
Reasonably exhaustive research will give us the verifiable answer and provide the two or more pieces of independent evidence for Chester's death date.
My first action was to call the Death Certificate Desk at the Indiana State Board of Health. I wanted to know if those numbers at the top of the form designated the year, and if there was anything 'funny' I needed to know in their files. Ruth, the very nice clerk, verified that yes, those were date designations and checked for other information. Chester's death certificate was indeed filed in 1987 and she confirmed 1977 was a mistake. There is no easy process to have the certificate changed, and we left it at that. While enlightening, I do not consider this really independent information. I now have a corrected year, but need to find other independent information to contribute to my claim that Chester died in 1987.
Because this is a 'modern' death, I was quickly able to locate Chester's Obituary in the 15 November, 1987 Journal and Courier (the local newspaper). This confirmed the day, month and year. His death is also listed as Nov 1987 in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) - confirming the month and year.
The informant on the death certificate may have been the same person who submitted the obituary. Who submitted the SSDI information is unknown. It may have been the informant, the doctor, the funeral director, or the State of Indiana. Who submitted the information is not important to my research question. I will assume it is someone with primary knowledge of Chester's demise.
The death certificate, obituary and SSDI listing all support a death year of 1987. The conflicting date on the certificate was addressed. Three independent sources provide evidence that Chester died on 14 November 1987.
The answer to my research question - When did Chester Fern Strong of Pine Village, Indiana die? - 14 November 1987.
I did search for an obituary and death in 1977, just in case there was another story, but he was not listed. Reasonably exhaustive research made me check, just in case.
It's important to read and analyse all the information on a document, even an 'official' one. Slow down, develop proofs for all your research, you'll be a more confident Genealogist.
Let's DO Genealogy!