Citing a Death Certificate

 Dear Editor;

I have a copy of the following 3 documents:

2003-07-22 Death - Corr. from  C. Patterson to Jessie Gauthier (letter) - Murison, Charles
1922-11-05 Death - Medical Certificate of Cause of Death - MURISON, Charles
1922-11-05 Death - Registration of Death - MURISON, Charles

The correspondence of 2003-07-22 was the cover letter for certified copies of the two death-related documents that were requested by my mother (deceased) with my assistance. The entire package was passed to me upon her death.

The cover letter contains the response date, Service Request (SR) # and Pre-Registration #, plus some extracted information on Charles Murison. The Pre-Registration# is a reference to the request I helped her complete and the Service Request (SR) # is the Alberta Government Services (Registries) - Vital Statistics reference number for servicing the request. Neither of the actual images of the death documents has any reference number.

1) Should this material be cited as one item, because the material is part of the same "package" and something might be lost by trying to treat the components separately?

2) The Medical Certificate of Cause of Death is an image copy. The Coroner signed the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death the day after the death and there was no autopsy. There is a lot of info on the certificate, likely copied from the registration, but only the cause of death would be readily apparent to the coroner, after the fact. How does one classify the Information Type? Would it be Primary for the cause of death and Secondary for everything else?

Excuse me for not providing images, but these documents are not publically available and I don't wish to run afoul of the privacy laws.







Submitted byEEon Sun, 09/29/2019 - 13:57

Hello, History-Hunter.


Essentially we have a file that contains disparate items. That’s a situation we face with many types of records, from pension files to court cases. You’ll find the basic rule at 8.7, where the use of documents within a file is introduced:

“When you use a file or packet containing individual documents, you will need to cite both the file (by name and/or number) and the relevant document within the file.”

This, incidentally, is indexed under “citation issues: files vs. documents.”

In the case you pose, your three items do not represent a file within a formal archive—only a file you’ve created in your personal papers. In your source list entry, where generalized citations are used, you may cite the three items collectively as one file if you wish. However, when your narrative makes a specific assertion that you take from one of the three items, then you must identify the specific item that provides that information. This is the same principle you’d follow in citing documents from a pension application or a court case.  Examples are at 8.19 n.3, 11.40 nn. 3 and 4, and rampantly throughout the rest of Chapter 11.

Question 2:

Would the coroner’s statement of death be considered primary information while the rest of the details on the medical certificate be considered secondary?

This question might be clarified in your mind by converting the word primary to “firsthand” and the word secondary to “secondhand.” You’ve stated that there was no autopsy. In that case, how would the coroner have firsthand knowledge of the cause of death?

Unnumbered issue:

You’ve stated that the cover letter contains (1) the response date: (2) a service request #; and (3) a Pre-Registration #, plus extracted information. The only items in this cover letter that you would normally cite would be the date of the letter, the agency, and the official who sent the letter. That would be cited in your first full reference note, as provenance for the two document images that the letter transmitted. We do not normally cite service request number or numbers that identify “the request I helped her complete.” Those transaction numbers are relevant only to the office handling of your request for information. They would be irrelevant to anyone else who attempted to obtain those two documents for themselves.

Incidentally, you have my apologies for the tardy response. I’ve been on the road for lecturing and research without sufficient time to keep up with the messages that seem, these days, to come out of everywhere but my fridge.

Submitted byHistory-Hunteron Sun, 09/29/2019 - 15:53

Dear Editor;

No need to apologize for the tardiness. I know that this forum is just a small part of your obligations and I am thankful for having a place in which to ask these questions.

I wish that I could have included the Death Registration and Medical Certificate of Cause of Death, plus the covering letter. It may have made it easier to visualize the issue. I understand that the materials may have just been released to the Edmonton Archives. So, in retrospect, this might actually have been permissible.

Let me see if I understand the essence of your reply to the main issue, by putting it in my own words...

When citing either the attached Death Registration or Medical Certificate of Cause of Death, the covering letter only has incidental value as the vehicle by which the two attachments were conveyed to me. A subsequent researcher would only find value in it as defining from whom I received the two items and when. So, just that information from the cover letter would be used within the reference note in order to document the provenance of the specific attachment of interest.

However; if there is relevant information contained in the covering letter itself, then one would cite the letter as the item of interest along with its originator and date.

The cover letter, the attached Death Registration and the Medical Certificate of Cause of Death could all use the same source list entry, if the entry is constructed with that in mind.

With respect to your answer to the issue of primary/secondary information, your explanation is perfectly clear. Thank you.