Thursday, December 06, 2012

Anatomy of a Death Certificate (or ... more confessions of an Intermediate Genealogy Noob)

Ahh, the death certificate.  So much information in such a small amount of space.  Some of it is even reliable!

I'm going to share two examples.  The first might be one of the most accurate death certificates in my possession.  The second is definitely the least accurate.  Still, there is a lot of information in both that can be used.

I encourage you to take a look at Elizabeth Shown Mills' explanation of sources, evidence, and proof here.  (Take a minute to look at all of her QuickLessons while you're there - they are invaluable!)  These death certificates are considered to be original sources with both primary and secondary information.
According to this death certificate, my great grandfather, Thomas Patrick Slowey, died on March 14, 1963 after suffering from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) for 30 minutes.  Fortunately, this certificate is quite detailed as far as time of death and the doctor provided an actual time of death instead of just a date.  Thomas died at 3:50 p.m.

This information is considered reliable, since it was the attending physician who provided it at or near the time of death.  Of course, not ALL the information on this certificate is reliable.  Of course, I can't be certain who provided the personal information about Thomas, but I'm pretty sure that he lived at 812 Douglas Avenue longer than "minutes," as it shows in #1(c).  With the exception of that little morsel, the rest of the information given on the certificate is correct.

Noob alert:  When you are reviewing a death certificate (or any research document), always read and re-read and then read it again.  If you look over on the right hand side - yep, right there under the cause of death - it says that an autopsy was performed.  I've had this death certificate for over a year and I didn't even notice this until a few days ago.  I will try to obtain the autopsy report (if it still exists) to see if it contains any other useful information.

So ultimately, what sort of assertions does this death certificate actually make?
1. Thomas died on March 14, 1963 at 3:50 p.m. 
2. Thomas' cause of death was cardiac standstill due to myocardial infarction lasting 1/2 hour due to coronary atherosclerosis lasting over 2 years.
3. Thomas suffered a myocardial infarction in October 1960.
4. Thomas was born on December 29, 1895 in South Dakota, and he was 67 years old when he died.
5. Thomas died in Yankton, Yankton Co., South Dakota, at Sacred Heart Hospital.
6. Thomas' residence at the time of his death was 812 Douglas Avenue in Yankton.
7. Thomas' occupation was a foreman at the stockyards.
8. Thomas' parents were John Slowey and Theresa Burns.
9. Thomas was married and his wife was Anna Huber Slowey.
10. Thomas was buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery on March 18, 1963 in Yankton, South Dakota.
11. Thomas was never in the military.

You may have heard me cursing talking about this next death certificate.  It is for my great great grandmother, Eliza Bourke Lanctot.
As before, the doctor supplied the information regarding the time of death and cause of death.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting information on this one.  Her date of birth is given as February 2, 1859.  However, if we subtract her "age" (70 years, 10 months, 20 days) from the date of death (December 22, 1930), her birth date is calculated as February 2, 1860.  Which is correct?  Where did the information come from?

This is where the REAL errors begin.  Her son, Art Lanctot, was the informant.  He must have been very confused and/or grief-stricken (or both) at the time.  He listed Eliza's mother as "Eliza Bourke" and her father as "Zenophile."  That's all well and good except that those are HIS parents, not Eliza's, which does not help me in the least when it comes to finding Eliza's parents.  So pretty much every detail that Art Lanctot provided has an underlying question mark.

However, there are still some assertions made by the document that must be taken into account:

1. Eliza died at 1:00 a.m. on December 22, 1930 in Armour, Douglas, South Dakota from lobar pneumonia with contributing factors of senility and obesity.
2. Eliza was a proprietor of a hotel.
3. Eliza may have been born on February 2, 1859 or 1860 in Michigan.
4. Eliza was a widow at the time of her death.
5. Eliza was buried on December 24, 1930 in Armour, South Dakota.

Now I can take the assertions made by each of these documents and plug them into their related proof arguments.  This is when the information becomes evidence (direct or indirect), and it can be evaluated accordingly in context with other evidence.

Do we share any ancestors?
Please email me at lostancestors [at] gmail [dot] com


DearMYRTLE said...

Thanks for a thoughtful, straight forward post, Jenny.

Unknown said...

Thanks for reading, Pat! :)

bgwiehle said...

Thanks for discussing the "extemes", especially the reminder that one known discrepancy taints all the information provided by that informant. By the way, the "minutes" on the 1963 death cert was for length of stay at the hospital (place of death), not the length of residence at the home.

Unknown said...

Thanks for clarifying, I wasn't sure if I was interpreting that correctly. But it makes sense now. Thanks for stopping by!

Michael Hait said...

I find it a bit funny that "Zenophile" (xenophile = someone who loves foreigners) was born in a foreign country.

Also, in analyzing the information on the second death certificate, consider the question being asked. Art was asked "name of father" so he gave the name of his father, and so on. This is not necessarily grief-stricken confusion that puts all of the information into question. It may simply be straightforward confusion based on the question being asked. All of the information was probably completely accurate as far as he knew *in the context of the questions he thought were being asked*.

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