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What does a death certificate contain

what does a death certificate contain

Date and Place of Death

This is the date and place of death. Most deaths are registered within a day or two of the date of death. Today a death certified by a doctor should be registered within 5 days of the death and a death certified after a post-mortem within 14 days. If there has been an accident or suspicious circumstances or an unexplained death and an inquest has been held, the lag between death and registration could be as long as a year although in the past the delay was still only a couple of weeks. The death is not registered until the inquest has been held.

If the death being registered is that of a baby that lived for less than 24 hours, then these days the hours or minutes that the baby lived would be shown with words such as "Aged 2 hours" or "Aged 11 minutes" but I do not think this was common practice in the last century.

If a body has been found and the precise date of death cannot be ascertained then there may be wording such as "Dead body found on. " or "On or about the twelfth June. ". If someone is taken ill but is dead by the time they have reached hospital there could be the wording "Found dead on arrival at. " but again this is a more modern occurrence.

The place of death could be anywhere! Note that you do not necessarily have the address of the deceased. Column 1 is the place where the death occurred and Column 7 gives the address of the person registering the death but nowhere is there a column which gives the specific address of the deceased. If someone dies away from home and the death is registered by someone other than the wife or husband of the deceased you do not have the home address of the deceased.

The address shown may not give you the precise nature of the building. Institutions such as prisons or pyschiatric hospitals have alternative addresses eg 24 London Road which are used when someone is born or dies in them eg 24 London Road. could be an alternative address for an institution.

As with the births, the address may be very vague in the early days of registration. It might simply say "Skipton" or "Enfield". By the 1860s there is often a street given and by the 1880s a fairly precise address would be given. If therefore you have an imprecise address eg King Street given when you would expect a precise address you are probably looking at the true place of death - ie the person really did die on King Street rather in a house on King Street.


The 4th column (after entry number, date and place of death, and name) shows the sex of the deceased. This is shown as male or female and although occasionally mistakes are made in this column it is usually obvious from the rest of the information in the other columns if a mistake has been made and has not been corrected at the time.


The column next to this shows the age of the deceased at the date of death. This column must be viewed with a great deal of suspicion! Only if other evidence proves this correct should it be taken to be so. It is best to use it as a starting guide to give you some idea of how old the person was but no more.

There are two reasons why this information is likely to be incorrect. The first is - that the information is not being given by the person to whom it relates! It is being given by someone else - possibly a relative of the deceased - and the more remote the relationship, the more vague will be the information. Where the information is being given by the master of the workhouse, or the neighbour who was sitting with the dying person, the less likely it is to be accurate. I never fail to be amazed by the sons and daughters who do not know their own parents dates of birth.

The other reason why the information may not be correct is because the deceased person has lied about it for most of their life or just did not know themselves when they were born and how old they were. Especially in the early days of registration, it was not necessary for people to know exactly how old they were - after all there was no compulsory schooling, no old age pension and so on where it is important to know the date of birth. Many people "adjusted" their ages at one point in their life for whatever reason and thereafter kept to their new age. The sorts of situation would be where a couple under the age of 21 would lie about their age (or one of them would) so that they could get married without parents consent, or a man or a woman might lose or gain a few years so that the differences in age between themselves and a partner might not appear so big. A man might lie to get into the army (or avoid it!). In large families, especially where children have died and later children have been given the same name as an earlier one, the parents themselves would forget how old their own children were and when they were born.


The 5th column on the certificate is for the occupation of the deceased. What is shown will depend on the sex of the deceased, marital status and age, and the date at which the registration is being made.

For a man of working age - his occupation should be shown. In the last century most men had to work for as long as possible and could still be working at any age. It is possible that an occupation may be given simply as retired (which would imply that they had financial resources from other income), or it may say something on the lines of "not in gainful employment" or "out of employment" or similar for someone too old or too sick to work or who had lost a job during periods of recession.

The occupation shown is only the last one that the deceased had which may not give the true picture - for example, a man might be a blacksmith most of his life but towards the end of his working life he might not be able to continue this and be shown only as a labourer on the death certificate.

For a single woman - her occupation might be shown. Equally there might be simply a blank or for a woman from a wealthy background (even well into her twenties or more) it might say "daughter of. (name of father). (his occupation).

For a wife or widow - her occupation was considered to be being married to her husband! So there will not be any reference to her paid employment (and a vast number of women did work) but it will say wife (or widow) of. (husbands name). (his occupation). So you cannot tell from this whether a woman had been working - even when they held down professional jobs as they might have done towards the end of the 19th century and iup to the present. Married women were not shown as having an occupation until 1969.

For a child it will say Son or daughter of. (fathers name). (his occupation). Again there is no reference to the mother until 1969 unless the child was illegitimate in which case it will say Son or daughter of. (mothers name). (her occupation).

In the first 7 or 8 years of registration these patterns are very variable and all sorts of variations can be found but by 1845 the registrations appear to be more consistent.

Cause Of Death

This is the really juicy column. Let me start by explaining who might have given the information that you find given as the cause of death.

There are basically 4 possible scenarios

  1. Uncertified death
  2. Certification by a doctor
  3. Certification by a post-mortem but without an Inquest
  4. Certification following an inquest.

In the early days of registration all the deaths were uncertified. The informant simply gave the cause as they saw it. And they were probably not far off the truth. You tend to get simple causes such as measles, stroke, gout, childbirth and so on.

It is still possible to have a death not certified by a doctor in which case it is still the informant who is supposed to tell the registrar what the cause of death was. If you have a death certificate without the name of a certifiying doctor and it was not a post mortem or an inquest then you have an uncertified death. They are pretty rare today - but the sort of situation in which you would have an uncertified death would be where a person died at home at the weekend - they had only been treated by the one doctor from their surgery and that doctor went on holiday for a fortnight starting that weekend. In that case there is no other doctor who can legally sign a certificate. The coroner would then be notified - but if he decides after looking into the matter that there is no need for a post mortem then you would have an uncertified death.

By 1845 most of the causes of death are followed by the word - certified. Where those words are not found then a doctor did not write a certificate of cause of death. Plenty of families who had sick and dying relatives would not necessarily have called a doctor to see the patient - after all doctors had to be paid.

By 1875 the cause of death is followed by "Certified by. (name of doctor). (doctors qualifications)" in which case the doctor in attendance on the deceased in his last illness has signed a medical certificate of cause of death. This tends then to be in medical jargon eg myocardial infarction (a layman would have said heart attack) or cerebrovascular accident (stroke). A doctor is only qualified to sign if he has been in attendance on the deceased in his last illness AND has either seen the deceased within 14 days of his death or saw the deceased after death. If there is no doctor who qualifies under these restrictions then the death must be notified to the coroner.

When a death has been notified to the coroner, that coroner may take one of two actions. If the coroner is satisfied with the cause of death and the circumstances immediately before the death, he may decide to take no further action in which case the original doctors certificate will stand.

If there is no doctor at all qualified to sign or the cause of death is not certain or the circumstances are open to debate then the coroner may insist on a post-mortem (and the relatives will not be able to object to this). If the post- mortem gives a clear cause of death and the circumstances are not suspicious then the death will be registered on a coroners post-mortem and the certifiying person will be given as the coroner or it may just say "post-mortem" or "PM".

If there are suspicious circumstances and the death is considered to be due to violence (including self-inflicted) or neglect or unnatural (eg someone dying from severe sunstroke or alcoholic poisoning) or from an industrial disease just to name a few possibilities, then there will be an inquest.

Where an inquest has been held it will say so although the wording for this varies through time. A verdict will be given such as natural causes, suicide (or deceased took his own life while of unsound mind), accidental death. If an inquest adjourned has been held and there is no verdict given then someone has been charged with the death. In the

past it might name the accused, or say murder by person or persons unknown.

I am not sure if our family is particularly accident prone but of the relatively few death certificates we hve (compared to the birth/marriage ones) we have 4 inquests. One died in a coal mining accident, one died from natural causes (he swallowed a rabbit bone which festered in the lungs and caused rapid death from infection), one drowned in a canal in February and one died from natural causes ( a twisted bowel). All 4 had considerable newspaper coverage which gave lots of detail you would never get anywhere else. The one who drowned in the canal had poor eyesight, was not known to be depressed, was frequently in the habit of staying away from his lodgings all night to look after his son who had been severely ill, had no marks of violence - and if they had done such things in those days I suspect he would have had a high alcohol level in his bloodstream! The presumption was that he had had a few drinks in the local pub on the canal towpath, had either stumbled or missed his path due to his poor eyesight and had gone into the canal when the combination of alcohol and low temperatures would have finished him off pretty quickly. Verdict - accidental death. Some of the inquest reports in the local papers towards the end of the last century have the most wonderful intimate detail.

Once deaths were mostly certified by doctors you tend to get more medical jargon - myocardial infarction, status asthmaticus and so on. As these medical terms have not changed and can be found in medical dictionaries I have not attempted to list them here.

Some terms however are no longer in common use and these are some of the more commonly occurring ones -

consumption - TB

dropsy - accumulation of fluid in any tissue (often a symptom of kidney failure or heart failure)

fistula - I think this is connected with boils and carbuncles but would be grateful for any better information

phthisis - TB I suspect that consumption and phthisis may relate to different forms of TB but don't know for certain

marasmus - always of a small child - generalised failure to thrive. (Could be from a major heart problem or a congenital disease such as intolerance to certain foods etc)

wasting - as for marasmus

apoplexy - stroke or cerebral haemorrhage

syncope - usually associated with a heart problem I thought although my dictionary gives lack of blood to the brain as its meaning

dyspnoea - difficulty in breathing

anasarcap - diffused dropsy in the skin

scrofula - TB (usually of the lymphatic glands)

climacteric - vague term meaning something unusually severe has happened e.g. heart attack or stroke.

I would be glad to hear of any more causes of death which are not now used and very glad to hear of any better definitions than the ones I have given - I don't pretend to any medical background

Many of these causes of death would not be acceptable today. eg dyspnoea would have to be qualified by something giving the reason for the difficulty in breathing eg pneumonia or asthma.

Name and Surname of the Deceased

This is the name by which they were known at the time of death. If, therefore, someone started life with a different name but by usage has come to be called something else you will not find any reference to the original name on older certificates. Sometimes people have dropped a first name so that a child named John Stanley FRANCIS at birth might only be known as Stanley FRANCIS by the time they die. Where a child was illegitimate at birth and only registered with mothers details they could only have mothers surname on the birth certificate. However, they might well be known all their life by their fathers surname so eg someone with a birth certificate of Samuel HOLLOWAY might be registered at death as Samuel STEWART.

A baby that has died might not be given a first name and the death registration would simply show ---------- GREEN and all registrations where the information is not known will have lines drawn through the relevant spaces. Sometimes someone would be found dead on the road or in a house and no-one knew very much information about them - even today this still happens and in the past when people carried much less in the way of paperwork about themselves it happened more frequently.

These days a person is frequently registered in more than one name so that all previous names would be shown. My 2 favourites were the man who was known as something on the lines of Charles WELLINGTON who was born with a name something like Abraham LEVI and around the time of the second World War had decided that such a name was not going to help him progress through life and so had changed it totally. The other was the man who had changed his surname to his stepfather's when his Police Sergeant had taken him on one side and suggested gently that he was never going to go far in the police force going into court and being named PC Hogsflesh! There are a multitude of reasons why someone should change their name between birth and death - but it doesn't help you much when you are trying to do your family history.

Informant's Details

Column 7 is the signature, description and residence of the informant and can be one of the most useful parts of a death certificate for family historians.

The signature could be made by the informant if they could write their name or it could be a mark. A large "X" and the words "the mark of. " will be familiar to most of you.

The description of the informant has varied with time. In the early days, the informant was one of the following

  1. someone present at the death
  2. someone in attendance
  3. the occupier of a house
  4. the master or keeper of an institution

The person present at the death or in attendance (which meant they had been nursing the deceased or in close contact with them during their illness) was also usually a relative, but the early registrations do not give the relationship of the informant to the deceased.

It is always worth remembering with registrations before 1875 that an informant "present at the death", with a name you might not recognise, could be a married daughter that you have had no information on since she left home, or a granddaughter or grandson, son-in-law or any other relative likely to have a different surname from the deceased .

By 1875 the relationship of the informant to the deceased was given - together with additional qualifications such as "present at the death" or "in attendance". People not related to the deceased but present at the death still qualified, but only "present at the death" would be shown.

The occupier (usually the owner) of a house or institution (usually the master of the workhouse) still qualified but in addition the following had been added

  1. a person who found the body
  2. inmate of a house or institution - this was a person living at the same address who knew of the event
  3. person causing the burial
  4. person in charge of the body

A relative of the deceased includes any relation by blood or by marriage so that - apart from the widow(er) of the deceased - daughters and sons, grandchildren, cousins, sons- or daughters-in-law, brothers- or sisters-in-law, second cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, stepchildren and stepparents all qualify. The early registration will make no distinction between relatives by blood or by marriage so eg it will say brother whether it is a blood brother or a brother- in-law.

A common-law wife or husband has no status in law for registration purposes and would be unable to register a death of a partner unless they qualified in some other way such as being present at the death. That doesn't stop people lying about their marital status of course! Nor are godchildren or godparents qualified to register.

Someone present at the death could simply have been the person who made a living by sitting with the dying and laying them out after death, or a close friend or neighbour and is not necessarily a relative.

The more remote the relationship to the deceased, the less likely it is that the information they have given is accurate. This is even more true when the master of the workhouse has registered a death as the occupier of the institution where the death took place.

Note that someone whose qualification is "causing the burial or cremation. " is NOT the undertaker. This is the person who is giving the instructions to the undertaker - or in the past - was doing the funeral arrangements themselves. Note also that the executor of a will does not qualify to register unless they are the ones making the funeral arrangements.

When an inquest has taken place then the informant will be the coroner and there will be no signature as such. The column will read something on the lines of "Information received from Thomas Griffin Coroner for the City of Westminster". Later on the date of the Inquest might be given.

The residence of the informant will vary from just a town or village name in the early registrations to a fuller address. If you think you have a married daughter or sister or other long lost relative doing a registration you should have a name and address - enough to look on a census, or to look for a marriage. We found a sister of the main line registering the death of her 90 year old mother in 1872 - 60 years after the only other time we had found her at her baptism. So once you have the main tree established - don't neglect your death certificates - they can lead to all sorts of further good family history material.

Date of Registration

This is normally very close to the date of death - or even the day of the death itself. Even today only 5 days is allowed for a death registration, or 14 if a coroners post-mortem is required. An Inquest has no time limit.

Occasionally there will be a significant difference between the date of death and the date of registration eg someone may have died without anyone else being aware of it, and the body may not be found for some time. In the case of an Inquest, the registration is not made until the Inquest has been held. In the last century that meant that there might be only a few days or up to two or three weeks between the death, the Inquest and the registration. These days, there can be many months between death and registration - or even over a year in a few rare cases.

The importance of the date of registration is that it dictates the appearance of the death in the indexes, as deaths are indexed by the date of registration and not the date of death. If you do not find a death registration in the quarter or even year that you expect it - look further on. It might have been that there was an Inquest.

If a death has not been registered within a year of the date of death, then the death cannot be registered except with the authority of the registrar general and this will be noted in the column with the date of registration.

Registrar's Signature

Column 9 is the signature of the registrar - and in the case of a death registered over a year late, the signature of the superintendent registrar as well.

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