Our ancestors’ death dates are not always readily discoverable. But they can be found using a trail less traveled, one that uncovers hidden gems and lesser-known sources of information.
1. Going Beyond the Obvious Religious Records
Religious institutions and tight-knit communities have always played a pivotal role in our ancestors' lives. Church records can sometimes offer an obvious, direct answer to the question, “when did they die?” But if there is no death registry or burial record, try a few other resources. Sometimes a church’s files or historian can offer old programs and bulletins with announcements. If you find your ancestor there, it may indicate a date when they were still living, which can start to narrow towards a death date. Following a funeral, the family may have put an announcement similar to “the family of ____ thanks you for your kindness to us in this difficult time.” Even prayer lists are helpful if they list your ancestor as being ill. Sometimes, a prayer list may say something like, “pray for comfort and peace for the family of ___.” or if their family is listed following the death. Your ancestor’s death could be revealed in a church ledger if donations were made “in memory” of loved ones or if their tithes suddenly stop being recorded.
2. Hints from Gravestones
Not every headstone records a death date. If this was the case with your ancestor, the stone may still lead you to an answer. The style of the gravestones can reveal when it was erected due to trends and styles of stones over the years. Or the cemetery may have records showing when the stone was erected. A symbol might indicate membership in a particular organization. When that clue is followed, it can lead you to find records like announcements or old membership rosters that could offer clues as to when your ancestor died. Finally, researching local directories may reveal monument companies that were in business at the time you suspect your ancestor died and are still in business. Contacting those businesses may lead you to find the record of the stone’s purchase.
3. Taking Oral History to the Next Level
Our elders are living conduits to the past, preserving stories that might not be found in any archive. These oral histories might not always provide exact dates, but they can certainly help. Try talking with multiple elders about the unknown death date. Ask them to think about what other life events were going on at the time. For example, if your grand aunt can’t recall a death date for her grandfather, she may recall that his death was before the birth of her own daughter. Another relative may remember that he died just after they graduated school. By piecing together two or more references like this, you may narrow the estimated death date considerably.
In my own research, I was able to determine that my 2Xs great grandmother died within a 2 year range. She was on the 1940 but not on the 1950 census, so I thought she died within those 10 years. When I asked, "do you remember the last time you saw her?" a relative recalled that they last visited with her at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration, but the date of that reception was forgotten. I found a newspaper announcement for that event. This narrowed her death date to between 1945 and 1950. Then, her grandson stated that he was told by family elders that she died “before I was born.” And that has narrowed the time frame of her death to about 2 years. I'll take that as a success in genealogy any day!
As you explore these three lesser-known sources, remember that genealogy is about piecing together clues as much as it is about simply looking up information. Embrace the fun of exploration, and don't be disheartened if some dates remain elusive. The gaps in our family stories can be as captivating as the details we uncover. Your dedication can unveil them, one remarkable date at a time.
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