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Vital Records << Teacher's Guide <<

| Objectives | Teacher | Main Idea No.1 | Main Idea No.2 |
| Main Idea No.3 | Go Online | Information | Vocabulary |
| Printable Version |




This lesson includes opportunities for class discussion and a video presentation. Vocabulary words are included at the end of the lesson, though not specifically brought into the lesson in the form of an assignment. Resulting measurable assignments include a written letter and genetic pedigree chart. While the lesson's main ideas logically build on one another, the activities and assignments suggested can be adapted or omitted according to your needs.


Take a look at your pedigree chart. If you haven't filled out a pedigree chart, you should do so now. It asks for information on three major events in the life of each person: birth, marriage and death. Birth, marriage or death certificates were usually kept by government officials, and are called "vital" records.

In a way, world records are recorded kind of like vital records. When a person sets a world's record, say for eating the most banana cream pie in one sitting, a judge has to be there. This judge must be someone who is recognized by the organization in charge of recording world records. Not just anyone can approve of a world's record making it into the books of history.


JURISDICTIONS (or "how did that feller git to be a citizen of Texas?") Vital records work the same way. If you were born in New York, then no doctor or hospital in Texas has the right to say you were born in New York. Only the New York hospital can issue your birth certificate. Now, if you were to lose your birth certificate, would you look for it in Texas? Of course not! You would request it from the state in which the record was first created.

Now, the same thing applies to your ancestors. If your grandfather was born in Orange County, California, chances are Orange County still has a record of his birth. Now, the Orange County Historical Department might have copied the record and then shipped it off to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, but this would be a duplicate. The original is still in Orange County.

What you're learning here is the concept of jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is the territory within which authority may be exercised. The Orange County Vital Records office is the first office that has the right to record events that happen in Orange County, just as the officiator from the World Records office is the only one who can approve when new world records are achieved.

Now, some people choose to go to places like the Family History Library to find vital records. To receive copies of their certificates in the mail, others write the vital records offices in the states in which their ancestors were born, married or died. Still others take long journeys, preferring to see the original record, no matter where that record may be kept.

REQUEST for a death certificate for an ancestor

If you know:

  • an ancestors date of death (within 3 years)
  • where the ancestor died
  • the ancestor's parent's names, including the maiden name of the mother

you can write to a county or state records office and get a copy of the person's death certificate for about $5. This web site:
will tell you what to include in your letter, as well as give you the address you need for the county or state courthouse for the jurisdiction in which your ancestor died. Follow the guidelines listed in this site, and within a few weeks, a copy of your ancestor's death certificate will be mailed to you, if it is available. It's best to choose an ancestor who is closer to you in time, such as a grandparent, or a great-grandparent.

When Jeff Gallup's grandparents died, he felt he had lost his only connection to his Sicilian roots, until he took his mother back to Italy. Searching for their ancestors' birth and marriage records in their ancestral village of Piana, Jeff and his mother reconnect with their Italian heritage. You'll also meet experts who will explain how vital records create an important link between generations.

What is a primary source?
Why would a primary source be your best source of information?
What do you need to know about the state where your ancestors lived or died before trying to find a vital record in that state?
Can you find vital records online?
Why would it be wise to find your ancestor's death certificate before his birth certificate?
What information can be found on a death certificate? A marriage certificate? A birth certificate?
What information could your ancestors' death certificate tell you that might be important for your children to know?
If siblings are listed on a birth certificate, where would you record this information?

Death Certificate Take a look at the death certificate
What was the person's full name?
What was her maiden name?
What was her husband's name?
Do you think that the person listed as the informant was a reliable source of the information?
What was the immediate cause of her death?
Approximately how long after her exploratory surgery did she die?
How old was she when she died?
What was the name of the place where she died?


As mentioned in the episode, death records are valuable sources of information because they can give you clues that will lead to other records, such as marriage and birth certificates. But they also provide another valuable piece of information: a cause of death.

You are the sum of all your ancestors. Think about it. You received half of your genes in your body from your father and half from your mother. Sometimes the genes that a person receives from his or her ancestors contain the code for producing certain diseases. Of course, not all diseases are genetic, but if you discover that a certain disease runs in your family, then you and the people you love can often do things that will help you avoid developing the disease.

It is very helpful to know the events or circumstances of an ancestor's death. For instance, if your ancestors tended to die of heart failure, then, according to doctors, it would be very important for the members of your immediate family to eat healthy foods, exercise, and avoid stress as much as possible. Knowing these facts might save your life.

Genetic Pedigree You can record what you find about your ancestor's causes of death on your standard pedigree chart, or create a genetic pedigree. A sample genetic pedigree will give you an idea of what yours may look like.

Note that boxes are used for males, circles for females. The information for each person includes the illnesses from which they died, the dates of onset of the illnesses, and the death dates.

Here are some tips to follow when creating your own genetic pedigree:

  • Four generations of medical information is usually sufficient for genetic counseling.
  • Gather medical information on living as well as deceased members of your family. Information from the horizontal line (brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins) is as important as information from the vertical line (parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents).
  • Talk to your living relatives about what they remember the causes of death to be for specific family members. Verify the information they give you and find additional information for your medical pedigree by gathering death certificates.
  • Look around your house for other records that will help you build a medical pedigree such as obituaries, insurance documents, and hospital records.
  • Treat the information that you gather with discretion.
  • Consult a physician or a genetic counselor if you have questions or concerns about the information you find in your family's medical history.

In this interesting article, entitled "Double Helix Genealogy," Mark Howells muses on what the future may look like for genealogists who begin doing family history using DNA samples instead of records.
This is the homesite for the American Journal of Medical Genetics, a key source of research on genetic science.
At this companion web site to the PBS show, The American Experience, you can learn all about the Influenza epidemic of 1918.


Now that you know what vital records are and where to look for them, you can fill in some of those blank spaces on your pedigree chart. As you know, vital records are kept by the state, typically, but not all states decided to keep vital records at the same time. Pennsylvania, for example, didn't start recording vital records until 1906. What do you do if you're trying to find the marriage certificate of an ancestor who moved to Pennsylvania in 1880?

. . . WHAT'S NEXT?
Long before the state decided to record vital records, the church did it. For this reason, religious records are some of the oldest in existence. In the next lesson, you'll find out why these ancient records are some of the most intriguing records to search.


Vital Record: A birth, marriage or death certificate as kept by a government official.

Primary Source: A record created at or near the time an event occurred, often by an eye witness.

Secondary Source: A record created after an event occurred by someone who either remembers the event or has compiled the information from a primary source.

Jurisdiction: The territory within which authority may be exercised.

Gene: The chemical unit that contains the dominant and recessive traits that are passed on from one generation of species to the next.

Genetics: A branch of biology that deals with the traits inherited through genes.

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