Friday, August 10, 2012

Back to basics in SA family history research: the Death Certificate

You’ve found and accessed your ancestor’s Deceased Estate file including the Death Notice and other contents. Now, do you need the Death Certificate?

The Death Certificate is a civil document, usually completed by a doctor. The only piece of information it contains which does not appear in the Death Notice is the cause of death. (The Death Notice – see previous posts - is a legal document, usually completed by the next-of-kin.)

While the cause of death is generally of interest to most family historians, in certain circumstances this could be of vital significance e.g. if mention is made of a hereditary disease, or if there is any suggestion of violent death such as suicide or murder. Sometimes after a ‘suspicious death’ an inquest may be held e.g. in the case of a man who died after injuries inflicted by a passing train (did he fall into the path of the train, did he mean to fall, or was he pushed?). Shades of Miss Marple.

Among the facts which should be stated in the full Death Certificate are: forenames and surname, age and sex of the deceased, birthplace, marital status, occupation, date and place of death, residential address, intended place of burial, cause of death and duration of final illness, name of the medical practitioner, informant’s signature, qualification and address, and when and where the death was registered.

A Death Certificate can be ordered – only if precise and full information of the event is known - from the Department of Home Affairs or from the appropriate embassy/consulate, should you live outside South Africa.

The original civil register may be held in the Archives Repository in the relevant South African province. Only selected registers are available. The 20 year closed period applies to civil registers of Deaths.

Check the Family History Library Catalogue at for filmed registers. If the Library Catalogue is a new frontier for you, read Ellen Stanton’s article at

You can see an example of a South African Death Certificate at

Hamilton family MI, Stellawood Cemetery, Durban.

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