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Oct 10th
Home Columns Ancestral Discovery The bureaucracy of death, part 2

The bureaucracy of death, part 2

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Last column, I focused on death certificates, obituaries and Social Security application records. But death leaves many other records behind. And just to be clear, I’m addressing US records (with one exception at the end). Eastern European records will be addressed in other columns.

When a death occurs, there is usually a chronological order to events: if the death was notable (i.e. the person was well known, death was unusual, such as suicide or murder), there might have been news coverage, and you might find a news article in the local paper at the time.

Again, if the death was unusual, a corner’s report might have been filed, and it’s worth inquiring about that.  

A death certificate is issued, which often lists what, if any funeral home, was used. That funeral home may have information not found elsewhere. For example, an ancestor of mine who immigrated from Warsaw to the US left very little behind because he was a virtual pauper, with no family. But funeral home records yielded his parents names, something I wasn’t able to find elsewhere.

Often the death certificate lists where the person was buried, and if you know the cemetery your ancestor lies in, the gravestone may be helpful. Most Jewish headstones have the father’s name on it, if you’re able to read Hebrew. For help on deciphering Hebrew gravestones, go to

You may also request records from that cemetery, which again might have some useful information, in addition to what’s on the headstone may be found. A caution: cemeteries are usually for-profit businesses and have no obligation to share anything — but many do, especially if approached politely.

New York metro area Jewish cemeteries Mt. Zion, Mt. Hebron and Mt. Carmel, have all put indexes of burials online — just type in their names in the format, www.mountzioncemetery.?com.

Hopefully this trend will continue with other cemeteries.

And a great centralized database, The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry, or JOWBR is certainly worth your time, at

After the burial, comes probate and wills. If your ancestor had any possessions or assets, probate records and a will can be very revealing, if they exist.

Assuming you know where they died, check with the county court to find the best way to access those records (assuming your family doesn’t already have them).

Wills especially help paint a fuller picture of that persons life, such as who they favored, favorite charities, and perhaps some philosophical musings. Wills are also vital for proving relationships, and perhaps telling you where children and grandchildren might reside. Probate records may also provide similar information.

Yizkor books are not US records. They are sometimes called necrologies, and are books written by survivors of shtetls and cities throughout Europe whose Jewish population were murdered or went into exile during the Shoah. These survivors, often in Israel, wrote these books in the 1950s and 1960s (usually in Yiddish or Hebrew) — often with photos of places and people - to remember the residents and history of that place. It can be an invaluable source of information, if your ancestor is there, since usually survivors recount stories about those people, often along with their fate.

Not many of these books were published, let alone translated. Fortunately, the New York Public Library and other libraries have copies of them. And most importantly, a project is underway to translate many of those yizkor books. Find out more by going to

Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 January 2009 08:38 )  

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