It’s far too tempting to see a cemetery marker for an ancestor and assume she died in that place. And then spend hours trying to find the death record there. But it’s important to consider that she might have died hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even a long-time genealogist can forget this when she really really really wants to find that death record. (Now who could I be talking about....Mary??!!!)
I recently researched the Smith family of Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan. Smith is rarely a fun name to research and this one was no exception. I found a death record on Seeking Michigan for Robert Smith, age 66 who died in Vernon and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery. FindAGrave shows a memorial for him. Though no spouse is linked to him, the photo of the memorial for Elizabeth Smith who died 13 June 1907 at age 71 is clearly another side of the same grave marker.
And that’s where the cautionary tale starts. I spent ages looking for Elizabeth’s death certificate in Shiawasse and later all of Michigan on the SeekingMichigan website. I searched for everyone named Elizabeth who died in June 1907. I searched for every person who died on 13 June 1907. I searched for all the Smiths in Shiawassee. I could not rustle up a death certificate for her. But she’s buried right there! Next to her husband!! Where, oh where, is her darn death certificate?!!!
I finally had to put Elizabeth on the back burner. Searching on Ancestry and FamilySearch I found a San Francisco area funeral home record for Robert Smith, Jr., Elizabeth and Robert’s son, which included a newspaper clipping of his death notice. Lucky for me, Robert Jr.’s sisters and daughters married people with far more imaginative surnames, including Dorward and Coppelberger. Names a genealogist can truly love.... Newspaper searches soon turned up a Flint, Michigan article indicating Elizabeth died in Los Angeles.
And then I dove down another rat hole looking for Elizabeth’s death certificate in Los Angeles. Another cautionary tale - don’t believe everything you read in a newspaper. Eventually I searched the California Death Index on FamilySearch to discover that Elizabeth died not in Los Angeles but in Alameda County. I guess to the reporter in Flint in 1910, one city in California is as good as the next!
So remember, just because someone is buried somewhere, it doesn’t mean they died anywhere near there. Be willing to search far and wide for a death certificate.
Thank you to my friend, Karrie, who lets me research her ancestors like they're my own...
 Michigan Certificate and Record of Death for Robert Smith, Sr. County of Shiawassee, Certificate No. 238. Date of Death 29 Aug 1897
 Find A Grave Memorial# 39077645 for Robert Smith in Greenwood Cemetery, Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan (https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=smith&GSfn=robert&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSst=24&GScnty=1304&GScntry=4&GSob=n&GRid=39077645&df=all& : accessed 25 April 2017)
 Find A Grave Memorial# 39074584 for Elizabeth Smith in Greenwood Cemetery, Vernon, Shiawassee, Michigan (https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=Smith&GSiman=1&GSsr=41&GScid=638&GRid=39074584& : accessed 25 April 2017)
 "California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1835-1979," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JNVX-C8M : 28 November 2014), Robert Smith, 15 Nov 1916; citing funeral home J.S. Godeau, San Francisco, San Francisco, California, record book Vol. 20, p. 1-404, 1916-1917, San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco History and Archive Center.
 “Death of Mother,” The Flint Daily Journal, 18 June 1907, page 8, col 3 (GenealogyBank.com : accessed 25 April 2017)
 "California Death Index, 1905-1939," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QKSM-DGFS : 5 June 2015), Elizabet Smith, 13 Jun 1907; citing 13872, Department of Health Services, Vital Statistics Department, Sacramento.
Have you ever had difficulty reading the cause of death on a death certificate? I share your pain (and so do the thousands of other genealogists reading this post.) Doctors learn a number of things in medical school, but Palmer penmanship is not one of them.
Did you know there’s a potential solution out there for your dilemma? Health statisticians have created the “International Classification of Diseases” lists. While these lists were created to help public health authorities to understand what kinds of maladies were impacting their constituencies, they’re a boon for helping genealogists decipher what the doctor wrote on Grandpa’s death certificate.
The original list of disease classification was created in 1893 and has been revised approximately every ten years since. A link to these lists can be found at http://www.sb-genealogy.org/files/International_Classification_of_Diseases.pdf.
When you look at a death certificate, often in the area where the cause of death is written, you might see a numerical code, generally two to three digits, sometimes followed by a letter. In the image below, the 1939 death certificate of two-day-old Patricia Johnson, the first word of the cause of death has been somewhat obscured by the code, “157c.” I can make out two words, “… foramen ovale,” (which I recall from my high school biology course 40 year ago has something to do with the heart.) When I look at the disease classification list for 1938 (the most current list in existence for the year of her death), 157c is described as “congenital malformation of heart.” Being able to look up the code has given me a pretty clear picture of what happened to this wee baby.
Not every death certificate shows the numerical code right next to the cause of death. In the following 1936 death certificate for Elizabeth Doyle, the cause of death appears on the right-hand side of the page, approximately halfway down. I think I can read “subacute nephritis.” At the very top of the page on the left-hand side above the county of death appears the number 130, which according to the 1929 disease classification list refers to “acute nephritis.”
Three takeaways from this lesson –
1. Bookmark this website. If you’re like me, you’ll want to refer to it often.
2. Use the most recent disease classification list taken before the year of death on the certificate. If the certificate you're working with is one of the "update" years, look at that one as well as the prior one. The statistician marking your death certificate may have been working with an old list, not the most up-to-date one.
3. If you don’t see the code near the cause of death, look around. It’s probably there, hiding in plain sight.
 “Please, oh please,” says this hopeful blogger.
 "Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XZBK-982 : 8 December 2014), Patricia Johnson, 10 Dec 1939; citing Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, reference fn 72017; FHL microfilm 2,023,770. Accessed 3 January 2017
 "Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XZDJ-QQS : 8 December 2014), Elizabeth Doyle, 18 Nov 1936; citing Columbus, Franklin, Ohio, reference fn 68990; FHL microfilm 2,022,732. Accessed 3 January 2017
 The 1929 disease classification list includes “130 - Acute nephritis,” “131 - Chronic nephritis,” and “132 - Nephritis, not stated to be acute or chronic.” There does not appear to be a distinct code for “subacute nephritis.”
Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.