Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tuesday's Tip ~ Pennsylvania Death Records and Percy Hunter's Death Certificate

From the Pennsylvania Department of Health website:
On December 15, 2011, Governor Tom Corbett approved Senate Bill 361.
This bill amends the Act of June 29, 1953 (P.L. 304, No. 66), known as the Vital Statistics Law of 1953, to provide for public access to certain birth and death certificates after a fixed amount of time has passed. This legislation provides that such documents become public records 105 years after the date of birth or 50 years after the date of death.
In February, the indices were made available at the above website. Because the state of Pennsylvania only required state registration starting in 1906, the only year of birth records available right now is for 1906. (Next year, I'll be able to look for the birth certificate for my maternal grandmother, who was born in February 1907!)

However, death records are available for the years 1906-1961, and with so many of my mother's extended family living in the Allegheny County area for decades, I knew I'd be able to find lots of family names in the indices.

The great thing about the state of Pennsylvania Vital Records request is that each non-certified death certificate costs only $3. Now, you may have to wait four months to get your request back, but wow, the information I got for almost 20 extended family members was great! (And I'm sure if I continued to look, I'd find even more extended family members.)

I'll show you how I went through this process to obtain the death certificate for my great grandfather, Percy E. Hunter, who died in May 1937.

In addition to the name and date of death, you need the state file number to complete the death application form. After clicking on "death indices" on the Act 110 - Public Records page, you reach a page with links to each year. Click on the year you think your ancestor died, and you'll see a list of links to separate PDF's.

At the right, you'll see what the list looks like for death indices in 1937. This will be different for each year, depending on how the indexer broke up the list. (If the entire 1937 index were in one PDF, it would be 2,365 pages long and take ages to download!)

Now, the thing to be aware of (which is noted on the initial page) is that, depending on the year, the surnames may be alphabetized OR they may listed according the the Russell Soundex method. 1937 is one year where the names are in Soundex order. Before viewing the index, I need to know what the Soundex code is for Hunter.

Those of us who have been researching since before the wealth of genealogy information arrived on the Internet will remember learning about Soundex in order to find our ancestors in census indices back in the '90's and before.

Clicking on the link for Russell Soundex will download a one page explanation of what the Russell Soundex Method of Indexing is and how to use it. I won't go into the explanation here, but I easily figured out that Hunter is H536.

I clicked on "D-37 G-H" and waited a few seconds for the PDF to load.

All the way down on page 927, I find great grandfather, Percy.

He died in Pittsburgh (abbreviated PGH). The Soundex code is H536. (There is a Patrick Henderson above his name and a Phillip S. Henderson below.) I believe the 02 represents the county, which is Allegheny. Death date is May 25, 1937, and the Pennsylvania State File number is 46196.

I completed the death application form for Percy (and several others) and enclosed one check to cover all the requests. I mailed this in early March and received my self-addressed stamped envelope in July.

Note that this is my scan of the photocopy that was mailed to me.

He died at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh on May 25, 1937, at 4:55 pm. The cause of death was "Carcinoma of ascending colon" due to "circulatory collapse following operation." (The operation was on May 24.) His birthdate of October 21 1879, is noted, as well as his birthplace of Allegheny, PA, and age of 63 yrs, 7 mos., 4 days. His occupation is "Pres., Pittsburgh Annealing Box Co." I knew his parents were James Hunter and Mary Freeland (both born in Allegheny, PA). Interestingly, the informant, the person who reported the family information, was a daughter, Mrs. Caroline H. Oliver.

I've written about Percy E. Hunter in earlier posts.

The burial location is Homewood, in Allegheny, but I've found him in Allegheny County Memorial Park (see his memorial at Find A Grave.) Perhaps, like his eldest daughter, he was moved from his initial burial location.

If you have ancestors who died in Pennsylvania between 1906 and 1961, check out the Pennsylvania death indices and consider spending $3 for that death certificate that might give you some interesting information, like a mother's maiden name or cause of death. Let me know in the comments if you've had luck with the Pennsylvania death records.


  1. Great post. Thank you for showing the walk through steps. So glad you made these great discoveries.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. I do try to make clear explanations to help someone else who might be looking for similar records.

  2. I've had good luck with the PA death indices. My maternal grandmother's family lived in PA after moving from Ohio. The death certificate for my g-grandfather did include parents names and has helped me focus on one of two very different family stories on their live in America after arriving from Ireland.

    I just sent away for another certificate on one of his sons who died in 1909. Unfortunately, another son died in 1900 and so far I haven't found anything out about him.

    1. From what I understand, Pennsylvania vital records before 1906 can be quite a challenge. For the cousin, perhaps an obituary that indicates a cemetery? Good luck and thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Elizabeth, I hadn't seen this post, and didn't know you had written about this database! I just happened to find this recently by accident, ha.

    1. Karen - I hope this description of the PA death indices helps. Thanks for the comment.

    2. It did, Elizabeth, thanks-- now I know it's by Soundex. :-)

  4. Elizabeth, you are correct at previous days there was not so much information stored in death records. Now a day’s these records contain extremely valuable information.

  5. Thank you for this! I've been hitting a brick wall my Philadelphia ancestors... and, this may help get some info. I hardly have any info on my dad's father's side of the family. The first census (1930) my grandfather was on, it only listed his mother (no father)... and, when the the 1940 census came out, he was living with two aunts. I did find someone with his mother's name on the 1936 death indices for Phila... so, I'll send my death app and hope I can make a connection. Thanks, again.

    1. Mary Ellen - I'm glad this was of help! I believe that these records are going to be made available on ancestry.com, but I'm not sure when, so it's probably worth it to send for the death certificate.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!