For researchers with Pennsylvania roots, this is big news. Governor Tom Corbett recently signed the bill that makes death records public after fifty years.
Prior to this bill, you had to be a legal representative of the decedent’s estate, an immediate family member or a direct descendant in order to obtain a death certificate for $9. You also had to provide the date of death, or if unknown, pay an additional $25 for a search within a specified 10-year span.
I don’t know about most researchers, but one of the reasons I want a death certificate is because I don’t know the date of death. Last year I ordered a ten-year search for my g-grandfather and it took a full six months before I received the document. If I had selected a time span that didn’t include his date of death, then it would have cost another $25 for an additional ten-year search.
Records Accessible On-Line
To comply with the new law, Pennsylvania has placed their existing death indices online, beginning with 1906 through 1961. All that is needed now is to locate a person in the index and get the State File Number.
The files are in PDF (Portable Document File) format and require Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10, which (unless it’s already installed on your computer) you will be asked to download before you can begin searching. It’s free and it takes a few minutes to complete. You may required to reboot your computer. Once Acrobat 10 is installed, you can begin searching.
Now comes the tricky bit: actually finding the information. Because there was no standardized format for indexing the records from year to year, initially finding what you want can be a challenge. Thanks to some marvelous collaboration by the Luzerne County “Courthouse Gang” discussion group, I’ve been successful in finding the death dates of over two dozen ancestors.
Here are the simplified steps:
STEP 1. Go to the Pennsylvania Department of Health Public Death Indices page. There you will see links to the records for every year between 1906 and 1961 inclusive. Note: All links in this posting will open in a new browser window.
STEP 2. Select the year you want to search. Within that year the files are organized by the first letter or range of letters for the surname. The naming convention for the files is “D” for death, 2-digit year (18=1918), and the first letter or letters of the surnames in the files. Occasionally the first letter of the surname may be split across 2 files.
STEP 3. Select the file you want to view. For this demonstration, we are looking for the surname Smith so from the list we selected the file “D-18 S.pdf”. When the link is clicked the download begins and may take a couple of minutes. (It takes 2-3 minutes with my DSL).
STEP 4. When the download is complete the file will open and you can begin searching. (You may need to hit the browser “Refresh” button to bring up the PDF file.) Some of the indices list the surnames in alphabetical order, as in the image above. Scroll up or down until you find the name you want.
If you find the record you need in an alphabetical file, you can jump ahead to STEP 8. However, not all files are arranged alphabetically, so you may want to continue reading.
Some years indexed by Soundex
The indices for 1920-1924 and 1930-1951 are listed according Soundex code rather than alphabetically. In this example, we will look for the surname “Smith” using the Soundex Code. Follow these steps:
STEP 5. To find the surname “Smith”, first get the Soundex code. There are a number of places to find it. I used RootsWeb’s Soundex Converter. Type the name “Smith” in the Surname box and hit the “Get Soundex Code” button. The Soundex Code for Smith is “S530″.
STEP 6. When you open the file, look for the Soundex code column and scroll up or down until you find your number. For “Smith” you would look for the number “530″.
STEP 7. Many names other than Smith may have a Soundex Code of S530, so ignore the surnames for now. The Soundex files are in alphabetical order by given name. Scroll up or down code “530″ until you find the given name you are looking for and then look for your surname. If there are multiple individuals with the same name, you can narrow down the selections by using the Town/County column or the Date of Death columns. If you don’t find the name you are looking for, check for alternate spellings (and typos) or surnames without a given name (there are many). Or try a different year.
And when you have found the information…
STEP 8. You should carefully record the name, death date, death location and most important, the State File Number. You will need this information to complete Section 2 of the order form. The State File Number is the only thing that is absolutely required. Forms without the State File Number will be returned.
STEP 9. Download and complete the order form provided by the PA Department of Health. Payment may be made by check or money order payable to Vital Records. The cost is $3 per death certificate and you must enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope.
STEP 10. The completed form, payment and stamped envelope should be mailed to:
Division of Vital Records
ATTN: Public Records
P.O. Box 1528
New Castle, PA 16103
According to the website, you should receive your order in about sixteen to eighteen weeks.
What about birth records?
Pennsylvania births also recently became public records, provided they are over 105 years old. Because of this restriction, only 1906 birth records are currently available. Ordering public birth records is very similar to ordering public death records. For more information visit the PA Department of Health website.