The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 9 – Death records

By Guest, 16 January 2017 - 8:09pm

Death records can provide a surprising amount of information about our ancestors while they were still alive. In Week 9 of our free Family History Challenge, WDYTYA? TV series genealogist Laura Berry reveals where you should look for them

  • Missed last week's guide? Click here to go back to Week 8: Newspapers
  • Download a free family tree chart to print and keep by clicking here

From 1 July 1837, when someone died in England or Wales their next of kin – or someone who was present – had to register the death at the local register office.

The death certificates issued bear the name and address of the informant, the deceased’s name, age (or date and place of birth from 1 April 1969), occupation (or for married women their spouse’s name and occupation), their address, and the date and place of death. From 1969, a married woman’s maiden name is also confirmed.

General Register Office (GRO) indexes to these records are on FreeBMD with good coverage up to the 1920s, and up to recent years at TheGenealogist, Ancestry and Findmypast. However, in 2016 the GRO launched its very own searchable index, which allows searches two years either side of a given year and includes age at death for entries all the way back to 1837. 

Once you’ve found an entry in the GRO index, you can click through to order a copy of the death certificate for £9.25. Local versions of death certificates can also be ordered via the register office where the event was first registered –  check UKBMD for details.

ScotlandsPeople has scanned death registers from the introduction of civil registration in Scotland in 1855. These records are more detailed, giving parents’ names too.

Indexes for deaths registered in Ireland from the start of civil registration in 1864 can be found at up to 1966 and the complete registers of deaths from 1891 to 1965 have recently been published, with free access, on the same site. Deaths in Northern Ireland after 1922 can be found at

Florence Nightingale’s 1910 death certificate gives “old age heart failure” as the cause of death

If a death certificate says information was received from a coroner, a record of the inquest may survive in the county record office. Newspapers are a good source for coroners’ inquests, reports about newsworthy deaths, obituaries and death notices – see Week 8 for a recap of where to look for newspapers.

You can find out if your ancestor wrote a will that was proved in a probate registry after 1858 at The National Probate Calendar has been scanned and indexed from 1858-1966 and 1973-1995 on Ancestry, but also allows you to order a copy of the will for £10. An index to Scottish wills and testaments from 1513-1925 is available on ScotlandsPeople.

Before 1858, ecclesiastical courts dealt with probate in England and Wales. Wills proved in Wales before 1858 are online here and a collection from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury can be searched at this link (available on the main subscription sites).

While wills give some insight into family bonds, the most poignant messages are found on headstones. It can be hard to find where an ancestor was buried, particularly from the 19th century as churchyards reached capacity and large out-of-town cemeteries were opened.

Records from some local authorities and churchyards are on Deceased Online, which also includes crematoriums. Findmypast has millions of names in the National Burial Index, and the major genealogy sites hold further collections. Find A Grave even includes pictures of some headstones.

Useful resources

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records by Celia Heritage

This book shows how you can build a detailed picture of your ancestors using death records.

The Society of Genealogists’ Guide to Probate Records

This guide explains how probate courts operated before and after 1858.


Glossary of Archaic Medical Terms, Diseases and Causes of Death

A useful website that interprets the cause of death on certificates in layman’s terms.






Week 9 tasks

  • Order a copy of a death certificate from the General Register Office.
  • Search newspapers to see if a death notice or obituary can be found.
  • Find out if your ancestor left a will.
  • Try to discover where they are buried and see if the grave has a headstone.
  • Check the local archives for any monumental inscriptions from headstones that have been removed.


Next week...

In next week’s guide (Monday 23 January), Laura will reveal how you can find details of your ancestors' baptisms, marriages and burials in parish registers

Transcription Tuesday 2017: Join the Cornwall Parish Registers team!
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The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 10 – Parish records
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Transcription Tuesday 2017: Join the Cornwall Parish Registers team!
previous blog Article
The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 10 – Parish records
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