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from the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 4/24/2002

Clarifying Clara: Analysis of A Death Certificate

The goal of the genealogist, as some readers already know, is to collect as much paper as possible. The "genealogy game" is won by the person whose paper collection is the largest.

This comment is only partially in jest. The goal of the genealogist should be to collect as much information as possible, analyze that information thoroughly, weigh the accuracy of that information, consider the original source from which the information came, and reach reasonable conclusions based upon that evidence. Consequently, whenever a researcher obtains any document, that document should be analyzed for clues to other records.

I obtained the death certificate of Clara Ettie Lake, who died in Bevier, Macon County, Missouri, on 14 March 1921 at the age of fifty- three years. For the purposes of this article, I'll pretend that the only information I have on Clara is what is contained in the death certificate. In summary, the certificate provided the following information:

Born: 25 October 1867, Macon County, Missouri
Died: 14 March 1921, Bevier, Macon County, Missouri
Buried: 16 March 1921, Oakwood Cemetery
Name of Clara's widower Grandville Lake
Name of Clara's parents and their places of birth: Wm. Rhodus, Kentucky; Matilda Jones, Kentucky
Cause of death: pneumonia
Informant: Grandville Lake

I should determine what newspapers are available in and around Bevier. Even if Bevier has a paper, newspapers in nearby towns should also be referenced for slightly different obituaries. It may also be helpful to check the newspaper in the county seat as well. The obituary may provide additional information about Clara.

I'll look for a probate or will in the county where Clara died, but if one is not located, I will not be surprised. During the time period under study, a woman who dies with a surviving spouse is not as likely to have an estate settlement as one who dies after surviving her husband. There are exceptions, but the lack of a probate or will would not be surprising.

The tombstone for Clara may not provide any information for Clara beyond what was already obtained on the death certificate. However, Clara's stone may provide information on her husband if they are buried together, particularly his dates of birth and death. This information will facilitate access to those records. There may be other family members buried near Clara as well, either children or other family members. When Clara's stone is located, nearby gravestones should also be read. The certificate lists the cemetery only as "Oakwood," not providing a more specific location. Bevier is the place to begin looking for Oakwood cemetery since that is where Clara died, where the widower was living and what the undertaker listed as his address. In some cases, details like this will be omitted from a record. The omission is usually done because all the parties immediately involved in the burial already knew where the cemetery was -- so why bothering noting it on the record?

Undertaker Records?
The undertaker is listed as an H.G. Edwards of Bevier. I doubt if the funeral home is still in existence under the same name. It is possible that current funeral homes in the area have the old records. If the funeral home does not exist today, I would exhaust other records before extensively pursuing this lead.

Census work should begin with the most recent census and work back. For Clara, this would be the 1920 census. The search for Clara in census records should begin in Bevier, Macon County, Missouri, and expand from there if she is not initially located. According to the death certificate, Clara was born in Macon County and it is likely she lived there her entire life. Locating Clara in census records with her husband may allow us to estimate her date of marriage to Grandville Lake, thus facilitating access to those records.

Since the names of Clara's parents are known (or are at least stated on the death certificate), the researcher may wish to locate the family in the 1870 census (the first one in which Clara should be listed) and later census records as well. Before extensive research is conducted on William and Matilda Jones Rhodus (the parents of Clara) research should be fairly complete on Clara. Complete research on Clara may provide additional information on her parents and making our research of the parents easier. Clara's family was located in the 1870 and 1880 Missouri Census for Macon County. The 1870 census listing in Macon County, Missouri is consistent with Clara's birth there in 1867. However, the family's residence in Macon County three years after Clara's birth does not absolutely guarantee she was born there.

According to Clara's death certificate, her father was born in Kentucky. According to her father's 1880 census entry he was born in Tennessee. Each record could easily be incorrect. William Rhodus' son-in-law, Grandville Lake was the certificate's informant and might have known little about William's early life. Census records can easily be incorrect. Locating additional records on William Rhodus will be necessary, but research on William should be held off until more work has been done on Clara.

Primary or Secondary?
We have used a great deal of the details on the death certificate in an attempt to locate additional information on Clara Lake and her family. It is important to remember what information on the certificate is primary and what information on the certificate is secondary. The death certificate is a primary source for information on Clara's death and burial as these events took close to the time the document was recorded and the informants very likely had first hand knowledge of the information. The death certificate is a secondary source for information on Clara's birth and her parents as the document was recorded fifty-three years after Clara's birth and the informant likely did not have first-hand knowledge of the birth itself. As new records on Clara are obtained the details contained in these new records should always be compared with the information already obtained in order to determine what consistencies and inconsistencies arise. There will always be inconsistencies---it is a simple fact of research. The problem is in deciding just how inconsistent the inconsistencies are.

Clara's death certificate might have been her last record, but it is just the beginning of our research.


Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002, All rights reserved.

 Used by the author on his website with permission. 

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