Remember when I said that the only thing you can trust about a death certificate is that somebody died? I was wrong. Somebody might not have even died!
Gordon L. Remington, professional genealogist, related the following to me:
“Even in 1987 it took so long to order a death certificate from the State of New York through Albany, that I called the Town Clerk’s Office in the Town of Harmony, Chautauqua County. The town clerks in New York, beginning in 1881, were the officials who recorded the original record of birth, marriage or death, and then sent the information on to Albany. The Town Clerk, therefore, has a duplicate of what is in Albany.
The Town Clerk of Harmony at that time also had an insurance agency, and the secretary who answered the phone was used to dealing with the insurance aspect of the office. She had never looked up a death record before and was very excited to try (and to take a break from insurance claims).
She was so excited in fact, that when she wrote me to tell me that she was able to find one of the two death records I requested, she erred in the name of the person for whom she found the certificate!
I got a chuckle out of an ‘official’ document indicating that I was dead, and would use this letter whenever I was nominated for office in a local genealogical society to decline ‘the honor.’
I have removed the name of the secretary from the letter, in the event she still works there.
One other thing – death certificates in New York now cost $22 for the “genealogical research only form” and Albany now recommends that you first go to the town clerk if you are sure of the date and place where the person died. There are indexes to New York State vital records available in Albany, Manhattan, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, but not online or at the Family History Library. Privacy restrictions are 75 years for births and 50 years for deaths and marriages.” [This story is used with the permission of Gordon L. Remington.]
Here is the link to the NYS Health Dept.’s circular on ordering vital records:
I heard of another case where a man had a death certificate created for him (even though he was very much alive) so his attorney could present it in court and, since he was “dead” he would be excused from testifying against the mob. I don’t have any evidence of this case, but it’s a good example of something that could have happened.
So, the next time you’re examining a death record, remember it’s possible that someone didn’t die, even though it states that someone did.
When have you found a vital record to be in error?