14 sources of death information

NSW Death 1873/3798

I was inspired recently by William Dollarhide’s article (reproduced here) giving a checklist of documents to be acquired for the death of every one of your ancestors and their siblings and children. William is American and his list is necessarily American in focus, so I thought I would write one for Australians and New Zealanders.

  1. Death Registration – a death certificate should always be obtained if the death occurred after civil registration was introduced in the colony (see dates below). The information varies from state to state, and may not have been filled in even if requested. Bear in mind that the information has been provided by someone other than the deceased, and that the more distant the relationship the less reliable the information is. In general, though, a death certificate may be the most useful document you can find about your ancestor, containing parents, children, birthplace and time in the colony.
  2. Church burial – if your ancestor died before civil registration was introduced then the church record of burial is all you will be able to find. Even if you have the death certificate it is worthwhile to find the entry in the burial register, as their may be more information listed than was required by civil registration, particularly in small communities where the minister was likely to have known the deceased personally. If you don’t know what religion they were, find out; it will be useful when looking for the grave, particularly in a large cemetery.
  3. Funeral director’s register – these are not always available or easy to find but may pay you for your perseverance, especially if you haven’t found the more obvious records. Some societies have indexed these or copied them on microfilm. It’s worth asking.
  4. Headstone – the grave in the cemetery can tell you so much. Information on a headstone can tell you where they were born, when they arrived in the colony, who was buried with them, who their spouse and children were. Look at the graves around your ancestor’s grave; there may be other family members you didn’t know about buried nearby. If indexed then check for all others with the same surname or that of the spouse or married daughters. Bear in mind, though, that the information on a headstone has been provided by the family to the funeral director who then may have passed it on to the stonemason’s office, who then passed it to the stone mason. There  is a lot of room for errors. The headstone may also have been raised by descendants many years after the death, or only when younger descendants were buried in the same grave. Even so, it’s something to go on that can be corroborated by other sources. The headstone may be indexed and even photographed by a local family history society or volunteer.
  5. Cemetery register – the cemetery register can tell you where in the cemetery the grave is located, which can be enormously helpful for large cemeteries. In cases where no headstone was erected the cemetery register may be your only proof that your ancestor is buried in that cemetery. The family may not have been able to afford a headstone, particularly if the father of the family died relatively young.
  6. Obituary or death notice – a notice of the death may appear in the local paper. An obituary will only appear if the deceased was notable in some way in the town or district, and a death notice will only appear if the family put one in. There may be both. Don’t just rely on Trove to find the notice, as many local newspapers have not yet been digitised. Most local newspapers have been microfilmed but complete runs may not be available. The Ryerson Index is a good place to start.
  7. Funeral notice – the funeral notice is usually separate from the death notice and advises friends and relatives where the funeral is to take place. These are not common in local papers that were only published two or three times a week, as it was impossible to give enough notice of a funeral before publication. The funeral notices may appear on the same page as the death notices so make sure you look for both. Funeral notices can also be given more than once, as family and  organisations your ancestor belonged to, such as unions or clubs, may have paid for separate notices.
  8. Death noticesNewspaper article about death – if your ancestor died in unusual circumstances or was well-known in the district there may be a news article in the local paper about the death. Be prepared for graphic detail that may be upsetting.
  9. Probate or intestate estate – probate (proving the will) or intestate estate files can give much information. If there was a will it should be in the file, along with the date that probate was granted. The executors may have been family members, perhaps even siblings you knew nothing about. Sometimes the death certificate and newspaper death notice will be in the file.
  10. Deceased estate (death duties) if death duties were payable at the time of your ancestor’s death it is worthwhile to find the file and see what assets they had. Sometimes assets are listed in some detail, down to the cost of furniture and pictures on the walls, and references to land and property that can be used to find titles and parish maps. There may also be declarations from relatives about their ability to pay the death duty on behalf of the deceased, so you can find out a lot about the economic circumstances of siblings and children.
  11. Inquest – again, if you ancestor died in unusual circumstances there may have been an inquest. The death certificate will usually indicate whether an inquest was held or dispensed with. The file may not have survived but the entry in the inquest register may. The file may have nothing more than a verdict, or it may contain graphic descriptions and transcriptions of evidence, and large glossy photographs of the scene of the crime or accident, so be prepared. The inquest may also have been reported in the local newspaper, and often much more detail is available in the newspaper article than in the inquest register.
  12. Military service file – if your ancestor died in military service the file may be able to tell you more. The National Archives of Australia holds military service files and are digitising them and making them available online as fast as they can. All Word War I files are available, and they are working their way through World War II. If your ancestor’s file is not yet digitised you can pay to have it done early (currently $16.50, or more if you want them to send you colour copies). Other wars are also represented.
  13. Broken Hill Miners' MemorialMemorials – every town has a war memorial, listing sons and daughters of the town that gave their lives in wars and conflicts. It can be very moving to find your ancestor’s name on a memorial. There are other memorials to look out for, for example, Broken Hill has a Miner’s Memorial (see this panoramic display) listing names and causes of death by year. In addition, some cemeteries now have a Children’s Memorial, when parents can pay tribute to the children they’ve lost.
  14. Hospitals and asylums – not all hospital records have survived, and not all surviving records are on open access, but if you can find them you might find out more about the cause of death and the last days of your ancestor. You may also find information you didn’t expect. In South Australia the admission registers of the Royal Adelaide Hospital recorded age, residence and ship of arrival, which may be just the breakthrough you need to distinguish your ancestor from others of the same name.

Look for records in all of these places. They may not always exist, but you won’t know if you don’t look, and you won’t know what’s in them if you don’t try to find them. I can’t guarantee that you will find something useful in all of these sources, or even that you will find all of these sources. The more information you can find, the more likely you could make that breakthrough you’ve been looking for.

Even if you don’t find anything you didn’t already know, you will have the confidence that comes from finding confirmation in a number of sources that what you have is correct. That’s what family history is all about.


Dates for civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in Australasian colonies:
ACT – 1 Jan 1930 (see NSW to 1929)

NSW – 1 Mar 1856

NT – 24 Aug 1870 (see NSW to 1863; see SA to 1870)

QLD – 1 Mar 1856 (as part of NSW)

SA – 1 Jun 1842

TAS – 1 Dec 1838

VIC – 1 Jul 1853

WA – 1 Sep 1841

NZ – 1 Jan 1848 (births and deaths); 1 Jan 1854 (marriages)


  1. Hi Carole, I have included a link to your article on my blog (http://practicalgenealogy.com.au/research101/).

    Familysearch published a list summarizing resources for each type of information. I had made a start on thinking about that in an Australian perspective…but your article is perfect

  2. Thanks Michael! Can you think of any I missed?

  3. What a good summary. Will be a useful checklist for Aussie researchers.

  4. Sharon Brennan says:

    Thanks for this list. Although It provides a methodical way to research deaths.

  5. Sharon Brennan says:

    Sorry about the poorly constructed comment above. Didn’t reread it.

  6. I think the list is thorough. The only other angle may be ideas to narrow the date, which may not actually give the date. For example a marriage certificate will often indicate that the parent is already dead. This is not an exact date, but can assist. On the other side children being born will mean that the parent still must be alive at that time.

  7. Blast!..as soon as I posted I thought of another one.
    Electoral roles give a strong hint, On ancestry I often check that the husband and wife are at the same address. As the couple get older, the roles will often then only list one of the partners. This can be a good indication that something happened. You can at least narrow the date range to be “After 1924” etc

  8. Other places where I have seen information about deaths include plaques and stained glass windows in churches; old age pension records; Transmission of Real Estate by Death notices in Government Gazettes; Police Station records (letterbooks, telegram books, diary of duty and occurrences, watchhouse charge books, etc); Police Gazettes; immigration records; Court of Petty Sessions records (police charge bench books, registers of maintenance cases, etc); Supreme Court records (equity files, originating summonses, etc); records of mining accidents, railways accidents etc; Colonial Secretary’s Office correspondence; Premier’s Department correspondence; and (a very important source in Queensland) annotations on State electoral rolls.

  9. I probably didn’t explain what I was getting at very well. I was looking at records about the death, not records that could give clues about when the person died.

  10. The online index to births, deaths and marriages is useful for events up to their cutoff dates, as they give the name of the spouse in NZ and siblings can be found Also I have found when using familysearch, be creative with search and try several ways, such as name of parents, and the registration district helps eg, my Irish line is Castlederg

  11. I think you’ve amply shown that there are many sources of information on our ancestors’ deaths and just how much can be gained by following them up. each one may offer additional or different info. I’m constantly amazed that people won’t buy certificates in particular.

  12. Thanks Pauleen. I am also constantly surprised that people won’t buy certificates.

  13. Thanks, Carole, it’s great to have such a valuable checklist with an Aussie perspective.

  14. (1) I wish more people realised that (if you can get to Qld State Archives) you can get many death certificates *free*, in probate files. It is worthwhile checking indexes to wills and intestacies for every name in your extended family tree. (2) In Police Station telegram books at Queensland State Archives, I found information about a suicide (a bottle of poison was found beside the body), but the death was not registered and there was no inquest.

  15. Adding on to Judy’s comments, I’ve also obtained several wills and death certificates from the Titles Office where they had been lodged to effect a transmission of real estate by death. These were in situations where there was no will, probate or intestacy in the State Archives files and ordering the death certificate was tricky as it was within the 30 years and I was not next of kin. There was a fee involved but from memory, it was less than the cost of a certificate from Qld BDM. This naturally relies on you knowing the address of property owned by the individual being researched.

  16. I have a relative who died in an asylum but unfortunately the records will not be available for many years. Have you ever tried accessing closed information from the Department of Health? It’s one of those things I’ve got to get around to looking into…

  17. Prue, you can ring or email the Health Department and they will send you a form to fill in. If your request is approved they will send you a letter to take with you to the archives.

  18. I assume that Prue is referring to an asylum in NSW – but in case the patient also spent time in Queensland, I thought I would mention that in Queensland we have a few different series of records about mental asylum patients, and some are open to the public.

  19. Great checklist, this is a great guide for tracing my great grandfathers roots. I wasn’t quite sure where to start but I guess I’ll start working my way through the list. One of these has to lead somewhere ( I hope)

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