Death certificates can be a gold mine for family historians. They’re fantastic sources of information and often include the stated cause of death. This can be quite handy for those interested in medical genealogy. I’ve noticed that more and more genealogists are documenting common family diseases so that future generations are better prepared. Also, how a person’s life ended concludes their story and it is a pretty worthwhile fact to know.

But looking at my own ancestors’ death certificates, I’ve realised that in a lot of cases, despite having the stated cause of death, I still have no idea what they died of!

Decoding medical terms is tricky, and decoding old medical terms even trickier.

Luckily, I’m not the only person who’s experienced this particular dilemma and many helpful guides have been produced for genealogists. A few you can access in the Genealogy Centre:

Death certificates and archaic medical terms
Causes of death & old medical terms: as recorded on death certificates
A medical miscellany for genealogists
Deadly details: a guide to some causes of death listed on death certificates

Another interesting publication, is the Nosological index : or guide to the classification and tabulation of the various causes of death. The guide was compiled by the Registrar-General’s Office “with the object of promoting scientific accuracy in the classification of the causes of death in this colony”

You can tell the author was clearly annoyed by bad examples he had come across in the past. Under the terms “Natural Causes and Visitation of God” he writes

“Are frequently given as causes of sudden death without violence, and are extremely unsatisfactory, as the former literally means nothing, and all deaths might be reduced to the latter cause. These terms are inadmissible, unless there be an absence of all other evidence.”

Do you have any odd, unusual or mysterious deaths in your family tree?
Or maybe even a Visitation by God? Feel free to share your stories in the comments below


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