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.

Headstone

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)

Family history travels

I’ve just spent two weeks travelling – doing family history, attending AFFHO‘s 13th Australasian Congress in Adelaide, and playing tourist in outback South Australia and New South Wales. Now that I’m home I have nearly 4000 photos to deal with, as well as all the books and brochures I collected along the way.

To attend the Congress in Adelaide my husband, Keith, and I decided to make a holiday of it. I have family history to investigate in Albury; we both have gold field ancestors; and he has ancestors who immigrated to South Australia and then moved to western Victoria; so we took the long way around, staying in Albury, Ballarat and Warracknabeal (western Victoria).

Albury is a lovely town, with many of its historic buildings remaining. I was disappointed to see that the old Mechanics Institute had been demolished, as my ancestor James Simpson was the caretaker there, but a visit to the library gave me a lot of new information on my Stewarts to follow up.

Albury Pioneer CemeteryWe visited cemeteries, churches and small towns and creeks all along the way. My ancestor Peter Hannah Stewart settled on the Indigo Creek near Barnawatha, Victoria, before moving to Albury where his elder brother had settled, and now I know what it looks like.

Indigo Creek

We then travelled down through Chiltern and Bendigo to Ballarat. I had been to other pioneer villages over the years but I’d never been to Sovereign Hill at Ballarat, and it was a revelation! I have so many wonderful photos that it is difficult to chose one. Sovereign Hill has actors in costume to give visitors a taste of how things were in the old days. As you walk around the place you can follow its history, from the early days when thousands of miners set up tents and panned for gold, to the establishment of shops, houses, churches and banks, to the large scale industrial mining once the surface gold ran out.

Sovereign Hill, Ballarat

I had never been through Western Victoria before, and what I can say about it is that it’s flat. Very flat. We found some cemeteries and churches from my husband’s family history.

Minyip Cemetery

On to Adelaide. I spent most of the four days attending sessions and talking to other genealogists, and making short visits to local repositories such as State Records South Australia, the Supreme Court and Land Services. Keith spent much of the four days researching, with only some of his time attending sessions. He got a lot done in that time! He transcribed over 50 birth, marriage and death registrations at the Genealogy SA library, and obtained copies of wills from the Supreme Court.

Keith made a breakthrough on his early South Australian pioneer ancestor John Jones from Wales by finding he was listed in the Royal Adelaide Hospital Admissions Index 1840-1904 on the computers at State Records. This index states the name, age, residence and ship of arrival and was enough for Keith to make the breakthrough he never expected with such a common name. Had it not been available on the computers there he may never have sought it out to check it, as he had no reason to believe that the Joneses, who lived in the McLaren Vale, would ever have had reason to go to hospital in Adelaide. It just shows, you must always check indexes even if you think there’s no reason to.

Adelaide Congress 2012

If you have never been to a Congress consider the next one, which will be in Canberra in 2015. They are only held every three years and are shared around Australia and New Zealand. Four days of concentrated family history is just too good to pass up.

We then drove north to Lyndhurst, with a detour through Mount Pleasant and Lyndoch for some more cemeteries and churches. Lyndhurst is at the end of the bitumen road towards Lake Eyre, and we had a flight booked over the lake and a room booked at the pub. It was April Fool’s Day when we arrived and they tried to tell us there was no room!

The flight was magnificent. The lakes had water, with algae growing that made them look pink in places. There is no multitude of birds like you see on TV documentaries; they are all at Birdsville, and it isn’t the breeding season. But it was a brilliant sight all the same. It looks like it should have flamingoes in it.

Lake Eyre

It is amazing country up there. Every few kilometres along the road you cross another dry creek bed, and flying over it you can see why. When it rains it really rains, and the countryside is covered by a network of creeks that drain into the lakes. One of the creeks we crossed had water in it, and when we got out of the car to take photos we could see small silver fish trying desperately to swim upstream across the road in an inch or two of water. Keith caught two and helped them to the other side.

Water on road

Broken Hill was next. We spent three nights there so we could have a good look around and go out to the Menindee Lakes, which also has water in them. The road into Kinchega National Park was closed, but we saw quite a bit. We went out to Silverton, and old mining town that is pretty much a tourist village and movie set now, particularly the Silverton Hotel, which has Mad Max vehicles parked outside.

Mad Max

There is a lot of history in Broken Hill. We tried following the self-guided heritage trail and took lots of pictures of churches and old mines. The Miners’ Memorial, up on the Line of Lode next to the lookout, costs $2.50 to visit but is worth it for a taste of the dark side of the mining industry. The names and causes of death listed are a stark contrast to the self-congratulation found in most other displays around town.

Miners' Memorial

As I said, I have nearly 4000 photos to deal with. I spent some time last night sorting them into folders named by date and place, which makes the whole business of culling and processing much less daunting. Many of them are research-related and will need extra analysis, but even the tourist shots have to be sorted or I will have to buy another hard drive to keep them all.

I will post some more of the highlights on Google+ as soon as I can.

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