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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Newspaper 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Memorials - 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.
- 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.
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)