Death Certificates

Good evening,

I have two death certificates for my grandfather. The first one I ordered in 2018. The second, is the original death certificate issued to my grandmother after the death of my grandfather. I just inherited the document last week.

Just want to be sure that I understand the differences in citing them both. I based these two citations on what I've seen in the book and some discussions here on this site. What I am mostly unsure about is if I need to include the agency in the second example, or is what I have okay? If it's needed, where do I put it so it doesn't appear that I ordered it myself?

City of New York, death certificate no. 4007, Harold Diefenbach (1947); Municipal Archives, New York City; certified copy held by TheCount, New York City, 2018.

Harold Diefenbach, death certificate no. 4007, citing death on 16 February 1947; privately held by TheCount, New York City, NY. This document is the original death certificate provided to Hazel Diefenbach after the death of her husband. It was formerly held by her daughter FM Diefenbach and passed to TheCount, 2020.

Submitted byEEon Sat, 07/25/2020 - 21:10

Yes, TheCount, you've handled them well. In the second, it would help those who later use your work if you identify the agency that issued the certificate to Hazel Diefenbach. 

And I'm assuming that when you say the documents are held by TheCount, that you are actually supplying there your real name.

Submitted byTheCounton Sun, 07/26/2020 - 00:19
I am not sure where to place it and not have it look like I acquired it myself. I will take a stab at it though. Does this make sense? Harold Diefenbach, death certificate no. 4007, citing death on 16 February 1947, Bureau of Records and Statistics, Department of Health, New York City; privately held by TheCount, New York City, NY. This document is the original death certificate provided to Hazel Diefenbach after the death of her husband. It was formerly held by her daughter FM Diefenbach and passed to TheCount, 2020. While I am known as the The Count to my family and friends, I promise to use my formal name in the final citation. bwahaha. V V

Submitted byEEon Sun, 07/26/2020 - 09:38

TheCount, you'd place the creator's name in the same position that you would use if you had ordered the certificate. As a general rule: the creator of a document, manuscript, book, article, or whatever, is always cited first. We might also tighten the citation this way:

New York City Department of Health, death certificate no. 4007, Harold Diefenbach (d.16 February 1947); issued to widow Hazel Diefenbach, then passed through her daughter FM Diefenbach to TheCount (New York City), 2020.

Submitted bytheringnebulaon Fri, 07/31/2020 - 07:39

I have a question about the ordered certificates. I have ordered many certificates and sometimes they come in the form of a photocopy of the original certificate and sometimes they come in the form of information transcribed into a new form (which I don't like) and certified by the clerk or other agency. 

For the transcribed copies I'm citing them as follows:

Lynn, Essex, Massachusetts, copy of record of birth no. XXX (DATE), NAME; Office of the City Clerk, Lynn.


1. For the certificate type, is it important to call this what THEY call it. In the instance above what is printed on the form is the text "copy of record of birth" so that is exactly what I have called it. In the instance of a certified photo copy I have two types. The photo copy part might be "certificate of death" but the certified document it is printed on is called "certificate of vital record." How do I account for this?

2. For the DATE, I continue to be confused what date to cite. Usually there are multiple to pick from. There is the date of the event, the date the certificate was recorded and the date of the certified copy. What date do I use? It is especially confusing to me for the transcribed certificates as it lists the date of the event (BMD) and then the date they created the transcribed copy.

3. For the repository I am confused by the examples above as I thought we listed the entity like the city clerk where the data is held vs. listing my personal collection.


Submitted byEEon Mon, 08/03/2020 - 09:10


As a starting point, I’ll reference EE 9.30 (Vital Registrations, Background)  and 9.35 (for Citing Date of Certificate). You might also check the index for the keyword "provenance" and then review the material on those pages.

That supposedly simple thing called “birth certificate” or “death certificate” demonstrates many of the problems of citing historical records: they come in all types and one formula can't cover everything.  The questions you’ve raised also illustrate why our language has precise words such as image copy,  transcription, abstract, etc. The most important issue is for us to choose words that describe exactly what we are using, because each type of modification can affect the reliability of the information.

Question 1: Label

When the certificate you are citing carries a title such as “Copy of Record of Birth,” then yes, EE would use those exact words and exact capitalization, with quotation marks around it. That lets your readers (and yourself after your memory of the record has gone cold) understand that you are not just generically calling it a “copy.”

Question 2: Dates

The date should be whatever is needed for the record to be relocated. In many locales, the original certificate number will include the year the certificate was filed: say, 1925-989, being the 989th certificate issued by that office in 1925. In some locales, as you'll notice with some of EE's UK examples, locating the document requires you to know the quarter in which the document was filed, even if the birth occurred in a different quarter—in which case the quarter's date must be included. If the narrative in your text states the date of birth or death, you do not have to repeat the exact date in the citation—unless the locale requires the exact date of the event in order to locate the document. If you do want to include it, on a “just in case” basis, that’s fine.  If you are citing a copy that was issued to you  at the time the event occurred, then you do not have to cite the issue date. If you are citing a 2020 copy of a 1972 certificate, then recording the issue date will preserve another data point for analysis. For example: In many cases, the 2020 copy will look different and have less data than the 1972 certificate, in addition to the potential for copying errors. All these issues should be thoughtfully weighed and decisions based on the particular document you are using. On the other hand, if you are citing a certificate you inherited, one issued in 1972 as a copy of a 1928 record, then you would be citing that as a family artifact, which raises other issued relative to your Q3.

Question 3: Repository

When you order the copy yourself, you know exactly the office that has the record. Cite that. If it's a local office but the certificate says "State of Whatever, Bureau of Thus and Such," you still identify the local office. You do not have to say that you have the document in your possession. When you inherit a copy or another researcher sends you one, then you do not know from personal knowledge where the original can be obtained. Administrative agencies change across the years; an agency name stated on an old certificate may no longer exist or the records may have been moved to an archive. For those "inherited" records, you cite what you see on the record; then you add the provenance—the chain of custody—as best you know it. You identify how the record came into your possession and any earlier background that might, some day, bear upon the validity of the document.

Submitted byTheCounton Tue, 08/04/2020 - 09:23
Point 3 just clarified a lot for me. I thought I had a good handle on citing these last week but then my citations for both ordered and inherited starting looking too similar. I think my confusion stemmed from the fact that on my ordered certificate I wrote that the certified copy was held by myself, when I don't need to do that. I wonder if perhaps instead of this: City of New York, death certificate no. 4007, Harold Diefenbach (1947); Municipal Archives, New York City; certified copy held by TheCount, New York City, 2018. That this will work instead? City of New York, death certificate (certified copy) no. 4007, Harold Diefenbach (1947); Municipal Archives, New York City. I think this might get a little tricky if I have a certified copy that is also a short form certificate though. I think that's up next for me. Thank you for these extra questions and answers.

Submitted byEEon Mon, 08/10/2020 - 16:12

Yes, that works. Increasingly today, those "certified" copies are short forms.