Death Records: a bit grim but worth accessing

Ok, in Western societies, death is a taboo subject. We don’t like it and we don’t tend to discuss it.  Let’s face it, it’s never going to make the ‘top 100 conversational subjects’ list.  But don’t shy away from tracking down your ancestors’ death records.   They can tell you more about your family than you think.

Why do I think they’re as important as birth, christening & marriage records?

Death records usually reveal the names of that person’s parents.  The witness is also usually a family member.  They almost always give an occupation (which is always interesting for a historical perspective – did your ancestors lean more towards certain trades rather than others?)

While all of the above provide great information, there is an even more fundamentally important aspect to death records for me. It helps me build up a picture of hereditary tendencies toward certain illnesses.

I’ve gathered death certificates for roughly a third of my African American ancestors and distant relations who died between the 1870s and 1940s. A distinct picture is beginning to emerge in terms of the leading causes of death. Cardiac and Pulmonary related illness are the two largest leading causes of death amongst the ancestors.  Statistically, from 1870 through to the 1940s (the latest I can acquire death certificates for online) Cancer-related deaths account form thess than 1% of deaths in the family (the actual figure was 0.0635%).  And, by and large, they appear to have been immune to Tuberculosis, which was a major killer in its day. Nor have I seen any Polio-related deaths in the records. Spanish flu, also a huge global killer from 1918 to 1920 (it roughly killed 1% of the global population), also seemed to pass my ancestors by.

Again, and again, and again – the illness which were the leading causes of death amongst the ancestors were either cardiac or pulmonary related.  I would hazard a guess that this had to do with a love of rich and fatty foods, a sweet tooth and heavy smoking.

It’s something that I haven’t broached within my family.  However, when I eat healthily (minimal fatty foods, the occasional sweet tooth indulgence, etc) and regularly exercise, I rarely fall ill.  If I do happen to catch the occasional cold, or the even more rare bout of flu, I seem to shrug it off pretty quickly. So I’m left wondering – is this is a familial hereditary trait?

Another trend has also begun to emerge: longevity. There are two extremes within all the families that have been the main focus of my research – Sheffey, Roane, Jossey, Matthews/Mathis, Turner and Harling – they either seem to die before reaching the age of 30, or they lived well into old age (e.g. 75 +).    Reaching 75+ in the 19th and early 20th century was quite a feat.

However, I should point out that the leading cause of death for the young women in the family was childbirth, or complications arising from childbirth, just as it was for many young women in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

While more than a little morbid, it is an interesting area of research. It’s certainly something that informs my eating and exercise habits more than any governmental health warning!

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