Death Certificates in England and Wales

A death certificate is important because after 1837 a burial was only allowed if a valid certificate was produced, which meant the civil authorities had been notified of the death.  Until 1874, the registrar had to register a death, using information provided by the informant, but since 1874, responsibility for registering the death laid with the next of kin or closest relative of the deceased.  

Although the GRO Index on microfiche does not include ages at death of people who died before 1866, the GRO has now re-indexed these entries in their online index, adding ages at death in most cases, although you do have to register to use this index.  

Deaths were recorded where they took place, and this may not necessarily be where the person had lived.  If a person died in hospital, for example, and this was in a different registration district to where the person usually resided, the death must be registered in that district.

The certificate may also help you determine if you have found the correct death registration in the GRO Index, especially if your ancestor has a common name such as John Smith.

Heading on a Certificate

The heading of the death certificate states the year the event took place in, the registration district, the sub-district if applicable, and the name of the county.

No.

This number signifies the entry number in the register.

Date and Place of Death

This column shows the deceased's date and place of death.  When looking at their place of death, please note that this is where they died, and may not necessarily be their home address.

Name and Surname

The name and surname of the deceased is shown in this column, as stated by the informer of the death.  If you are looking for a person such as Nora Alice, and cannot find their entry in the index, it is best to look for Alice Nora in case she changed her name.

Since 1969, if a woman was married, her maiden name was also listed on the certificate.

Sex

This column records whether the deceased was male or female.

Age

Age at death is stated in this column.  Their age is very useful because it could help you to find the correct birth registration in the GRO Index, although age was not always accurately recorded. After 1969 their full date of birth is recorded, but this could also be inaccurate.  

The informer of the death may not have known the precise date of birth of the deceased, and made an educated guess.  For this reason, it is best to search for a few years either side when searching for their birth registration.

Occupation

Should the deceased be a man, the certificate usually stated their occupation, but this would be their last known occupation, which may not have been their lifelong occupation.  If their stated occupation differs from what you know to be their previous occupation, it may mean that their ill health forced them to change their occupation towards the end of their life.

If the deceased was a single woman, her occupation was sometimes stated, but should the deceased be a married or widowed woman, it invariably just stated she was either the wife or widow of her husband and listed his occupation, as is shown in the example further down this page.  Since 1969, the women's occupation has begun to be recorded in more detail.

Children were listed on a death certificate as the son or daughter of their father, if known.  Since 1969, more details are added, such as the mother's name.  Until 1969, if the deceased was a legitimate child, the certificate of death usually stated he or she was the son or daughter of his or her father and listed his occupation, but did not state the mother. If the child was illegitimate, it would state the mother's name and her occupation. 

Cause of Death

The cause of death is also listed on certificates and this can be very interesting, especially if it was not because of natural causes. Deaths were usually registered within two or three days, but if it was unexplained and an inquest was held or a post-mortem was carried out, the death registration would be somewhat later.  

An inquest is/was held to determine how a person died if the death was sudden or unexplained.  An inquest was conducted with a jury, who determined if a person should be brought to trial.

Verdicts normally reached in inquests include natural death, accidental death, misadventure, suicide or murder.  If the inquest determined that a person was murdered, criminal prosecution may have followed.  

If an inquest was carried out into the death of your ancestor, you may find that a report was placed in the newspaper.

It is possible to find most post mid-18th century coroners' records in Record Offices but they cannot be accessed for 75 years. It is also possible the documents have been destroyed altogether because Coroners are not legally bound to keep them after 15 years have passed.   

Between 1487 to 1752 coroners handed records over to assize judges, the judges then returning them to the King's Bench, after which they were transferred to the National Archives.  If the report resulted in a verdict of murder or manslaughter, they are usually found in the relevant circuit's indictments or depositions files.  It is possible to find out more about records held at the National Archives.

Signature, description and residence of informant

Details of the person registering the death were recorded in this column.

If the deceased died before 1875, the relationship of the informant to the deceased was not given, but after 1875 this became more common.  If the deceased died in the workhouse, the master of the institution would be listed as the informant of the death.

Please note that the informant could be a relative of the deceased, but if he was listed as being a brother, please be aware that he could be either the deceased's brother or his wife's if he was married.  The informer could also be a relative previously unknown to you, which may give you another avenue to explore in your family history research.

When Registered

The date the death was registered is shown in this column, but is not the date of death.  Deaths are usually registered within a few days of the event.

Signature of Registrar

Only one person usually signs the certificate.

Other Information

After 1969, a death certificate also states the deceased's date and place of birth.

After 1 April 1982, the maiden surname of a married woman was recorded on the death certificate, which may help you to find the marriage registration in the GRO Index.

It is also useful to check whether the deceased prepared a will as this may again reveal relatives of which you were previously unaware.


Elizabeth Lambert Death Certificate

What information is on a death certificate:


  • Death Date
  • Abode of deceased
  • Name and surname
  • Sex of deceased
  • Age at death
  • Occupation
  • Cause of death
  • Signature, description and residence of informant
  • Registration Date
  • Signature of registrar

How to obtain a death certificate:

It is possible to order a certificate online from the ONS in Southport after you have found the appropriate registration in the GRO Index.

It is also possible to obtain a death certificate from a register office, which is the Office who assumes responsibility for the registration of births, deaths and marriages.  Registers held by an Office date back to 1837, when civil registration began, and are in the custody of the Superintendent Registrar for the district.  Each registration district may have several registrars, each taking the responsibility for a sub-district.


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