As we have been told all our lives, death and taxes are inevitable, and fortunately for family historians, both result in a number of records being generated.
Documents about deaths are probably the second most commonly sought after records, after census records, because we often dont know when or where our ancestors were born, especially if we cant find them in the census.
In a previous column where I discussed vital records, the most obvious death record is the death certificate. The ease or difficulty of obtaining that certificate will depend on how long ago your ancestor died (due to privacy restrictions, they may not be released at all), and knowing where s/he died in. As mentioned before, contact the county,or state archives of the appropriate state.
Every day, more of these records are becoming available online: actual death certificates are being digitized and are available for free download at a new beta site of the Mormons (its not just of Mormons) at http://pilot.familysearch.org/recordsearch/start.html-p=4. A portion of death records from Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Philadelphia, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia have been put on their site, but many more are coming. And increasingly, some states, counties and cities are digitizing their own vital records, putting them online and charging for them.
Sometimes, a more easily attainable record is the obituary, which can contain a plethora of information. You need to know what newspapers were available during that time, and if only paid obituaries were published.
Generally, obits have become much more informative over time. When first appearing in the 1800s, they were tiny announcements, verifying the death and little more. Today they can be a wealth of information far beyond the few facts contained in the death certificate.
Newspapers often will print death notices, which contain very minimal information but at least its a starting point. Funeral homes will often arrange for a funeral notice to be published in the local paper as part of their services, but often dont contain much more than the death notice.
A good resource for online obits is at Cyndis List: http://www.cyndislist.com/obits.htm.
The Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is another common resource to find death dates. Starting in 1936, social security numbers were first assigned to workers, and the Social Security Administration kept records that are accessible to us. The SSA established the index to keep track of records, but most deaths are recorded after the early 1960s, which will only help for people whose deaths occurred after that time. The SSDI is easily and freely accessible through a number of websites, including ancestry.com, and footnote.com. (Footnote recently created a system that allows you to create a memorial page to anyone who appears in the SSDI).
But the most useful part is obtaining the application for the social security account number. That application contains full name, birth date and place (although too often it will say Russia), parent names and place of employment. The cost is currently $27 and is well worth it, especially if you are unable to locate other records with that information. Whatever SSDI you find will usually allow you to generate a letter to the SSA, asking for the form.
My next column will look at funeral home records, cemeteries, wills, probate and yizkor books.