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)

 

Beyond the death certificate – probate, deceased estates, and inquests

image_paperworkYou probably already have a copy of your ancestor’s death certificate, which tells you where and how your ancestor died and who was left behind. Probate and deceased estate files can give you much more – what property did he/she have, who was to get what, and who was involved in the distribution process. If there were unusual circumstances surrounding the death an inquest was often held, which will give you details about how they died. This is invaluable information for anyone looking for those details that make up a clearer picture of your ancestor.

Probate is the process of deciding who is authorised to administer a will on behalf of the deceased. In the absence of a will letters of administration are issued for the same purpose. A probate packet is all of the documents submitted to the Supreme Court to enable this decision to be made, and can include the original last will and testament and any codicils; asset inventories; affidavits of death, witnesses, and the executor, and sometimes the death certificate and death notices in the local newspaper.

The reference numbers for probate packets can be found by checking the Probate Index 1800-1985 on microfiche, which is available in the State Records NSW Reading Rooms and many libraries. Probate Packets are progressively being indexed in State Records NSW Archives Investigator, which is their “on-line archives information and access system”, and so it’s worth checking here first, especially for deaths in the 1800s. In Archives Investigator use a Simple Search and enter the first name and surname of the deceased, and the word “death”; eg. “John Smith death”, and change the Using to “All Words”. Once you have the reference number (it will give a Series number and a number up to 6 digits long) you can go out to the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood and order the file to look at. Copies can be made.

The Supreme Court transcribed wills that had been the subject of probate from 1800 to 1977. These books were handwritten until 1924, and then were typed. The books have been microfilmed up to November 1952 by State Records NSW and are available there.

Occasionally the estate was administered by the Public Trustee (previously the Curator of Intestate Estates until 1913). Reasons include missing or non-existent heirs, unwilling executors, delay in administering or applying for probate, or the Curator or Trustee was appointed directly. Case papers after 1913 would be held by the Public Trust Office. Cases prior to 1913 have been transferred to the Western Sydney Records Centre and the index has been microfilmed. An online index is progressively being created by State Records NSW volunteers here.

Deceased estate files were created by the Stamp Duties Office. Death duties were payable from 1880 to 1974. An inventory of all assets of the deceased was compiled for the purposes of calculating the death duty payable on the estate. The file can contain wills; inventories of property, farm equipment or business, household furniture, and clothing; property valuations; statements from relatives, valuers and agents; birth, death and marriage certificates; and other documents – depending on the circumstances of the deceased.

State Records NSW has an index to deceased estate files on microfiche at both Reading Rooms. An online index is progressively being added to, currently covering the period from 1880 to 1923, giving name, locality, date of death and date duty paid. This last date, the date the duty was paid, determined how the records were filed and so is required to access the file at the Western Sydney Records Centre. Deceased estate files are available for inspection up to 1958.

Inquests were held by the Coroner to investigate cause of death. The death certificate should indicate whether an inquest was held. Reasons for conducting an inquest include death by accident, suicide, violence or fire; deaths that took place in public institutions such as hospitals, asylums or police custody; or if the person is unidentified. The inquest may have taken place some time after the death, sometimes years later.

Reports of inquests before 1826 can be found on microfilm at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence sometimes mentions them, and are indexed here. Inquests from 1826 to 1963 are indexed in the Reading Rooms on microfilm, supplemented by a card index at the Western Sydney Records Centre. The inquest files are also available for inspection at the Western Sydney Records Centre.

All indexes on microfilm and microfiche are available at State Records NSW Reading Rooms. The records themselves can be examined and photocopies made at the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood in Sydney. Probate packets can be pre-ordered in advance of your visit online here and other files here. Please remember that there may not be a file for the person you are researching, and that the file may be dated many years after the date your ancestor died, so that it cannot be found within the date ranges given.

Once you have your copies you will spend many hours examining them and marvelling at the wealth of information they contain, even if your ancestor wasn’t actually wealthy!

Sources:

State Records New South Wales, Archives in Brief Nos. 4, 29, 53, 84. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2004-7.

State Records New South Wales, Archives Investigator. Accessed at http://investigator.records.nsw.gov.au/. Sydney: State Records Authority of New South Wales, 2007.