News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 9, 2012

GENEALOGY: Funeral home records valuable to genealogists

Tami Dehler

TERRE HAUTE — One of a genealogist’s most valuable resources to help identify a date of death is the mortuary or funeral home record. These records often pre-date state laws requiring the recording of deaths by the counties, and therefore could be the only source of a death date that you will find for an ancestor.

Early morticians’ records vary in the amount of information that they contain. Some list only minimal facts, such as a name and date of death or burial. However, some early mortuaries did collect additional information on the decedent. You could find the person’s age at death, where buried, cause of death, marital status, surviving spouse’s name, name of the informant, and even funeral costs.

Later records of funeral homes are likely to contain much more information on the decedent because the undertaker’s role expanded to include obtaining the facts necessary to compile both the death certificate and the newspaper obituary notice. On more modern records you will likely find the person’s date and place of birth as well as death, the parents’ names, names of other survivors, occupation, military service, affiliation with churches, fraternal, and community organizations, and specific burial information.

Always remember that the information in the records is as good as the memory of the informant. If the informant was a close family member, it is likely to be more correct than if a doctor, neighbor, or distant relative provided the information. However, grieving spouses and children were sometimes in shock and didn’t get all the facts straight when questioned about the decedent.

To locate the mortuary record of a family member, first find out where the death occurred. Next, find out the names of the mortuaries in existence in the community when and where your ancestor died. It then requires some detective work to locate the records of that mortuary.

If your ancestor was buried by an existing funeral home that has been owned by a single family and never changed hands, the current funeral director will probably have the early records. But some mortuaries went out of business and no longer exist today. Sometimes the past owner donated the records to a local library or historical society, but sometimes the records were kept in the owner’s family. Over the years, the records could have been lost or destroyed, but occasionally you can find a private owner who makes the records available to the public out of his home.

Some mortuaries changed names and ownership over the years. When a funeral home was sold to another owner, the records might have remained with the funeral home under the new ownership, they could have been kept by the previous owner, or they could have been donated or deposited somewhere else.

The records of the following funeral homes are available in the Vigo County Public Library: the Gillis Funeral Home, Rhyan & Goodman, early DeBaun records, the Ryan Funeral Home, all located in Terre Haute; the Rogerson Funeral Home of West Terre Haute; and the Sherfey & Kidd Funeral Home of Centerpoint.

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