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A Beginner's Quest: Step-by Step #4
Consider the Reliability of What You've Found

Early on, you'll need to look at your documents and compiled genealogies with an eye to reliability.  Let's look at this scenario to get you started:

A man's death certificate might state:
  • State Department of Vital Records Number
  • name of deceased
  • death date and time
  • death place
  • cause of death
  • attending physician's signature
  • funeral home
  • cemetery
  • father's name
  • mother's name
  • birthdate
  • birthplace
  • usual occupation
  • informant

Probable Reliability

Let's consider that the death date & time, death place, cause of death and attending physician's signature  -- as well as the state department of heath certificate number are perhaps the most reliable parts of the death certificate, under normal circumstances.

However, even the name of the individual could be misconstrued, if the man died out of town and the physician had not regularly attended him in the past.  This could be particularly true where the individual had no next of kin to stipulate the correct name in full.  My own step-grandfather and his twin were known as Pat and Mike McDonnell during their adult life, as documents were being created.  I had the devil of a time getting Mike's correct birth certificate from the state of Washington until I was informed by Pat's son that they were born Dave and Dana McDonnell. 

The name of the funeral home is also considered "very reliable" since its representatives take custody of the body once it is released from the hospital.

Questionable Reliability

The name of the cemetery SOUNDS likely until we realize that as society "progresses" cemeteries are sometimes covered over to make room for housing developments, shopping malls and to provide access to interstate highways.  The remains may or may not be removed to a newer cemetery across town.  You'll have to verify that the cemetery still exists.  There have also been so-called "clean-ups" of local cemeteries, where the tombstones were temporarily moved to the side to facilitate regrading of the land, only to be "neatly" replaced in alphabetical order.

This category of reliability includes the information about the birthdate and place and parent's info.  Remember that the informant's relationship to the deceased does not necessarily increase the likelihood of reliability.  For instance, a grieving widow might make honest mistakes when providing the data requested typically by the funeral home.  She has gone through the first shock of losing her spouse, has just completed the choosing of his casket, and the arrangements for music, speakers and prayers at his funeral.  She has hit her limit!  And now they need info for the obituary and death certificate?!


All information in the "questionable" category must be verified through some other source documentation.  Look for as much "first hand" information as possible.  For instance, a death certificate's mention of a birth date is "second hand" evidence, because it is removed from the birth event by a number of years.  The mother and her midwife or attending physician are not normally there to verify the information.  

A normal birth certificate would be considered "first hand" information, contrasting sharply with a birth announcement in the local newspaper.  Published a few weeks after the happy arrival of the stork, such announcements are considered "second hand" information because of more than the time delay.  The newspaper typesetter and editor are not usually the parents of the child, so again, innocent, human errors could occur.

So the old adage CONSIDER THE SOURCE really rings true when it comes to sound genealogical research!

Your assignment this week has two components:

  1. Review the Standards for Sound Genealogical Research, recommended by the National Genealogical Society. 

    Study RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees - Lesson 12: Creating Worthwhile Genealogies: Evidence, Sources, Documentation, and Citation 

    Consult Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. It is found on many library shelves, and is available from Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore, MD.
  2. Look through the family history documents collected so far, and begin to evaluate the reliability of what you've found.  Note discrepancies, thereby leaving a big audit trail for those who follow! Where there are weak spots, resolve to find additional documentation for your ancestral quest. 

Other Step By Step Lessons appear at: 

Myrt     :)
Daily Genealogy Columnist
America Online Keyword: roots or myrtle 


1995-2009 Pat Richley HOME | Ask | Blog Right-click to copy RSS feed URL. Add to My Yahoo BookShelf | ContactLessons | Listen to Podcast media RSS feed
Read most 1995-2006 articles | Search | Subscribe