Given Name(s) Last Name

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 8/2/2000

Using The Illinois State Death Certificate Index

Part II of this article

Death certificates are an excellent genealogical source and those with Illinois connections have even easier access to some of these records. This wonderful online database contains an index to deaths in Illinois from 1916 until 1950. ( The Illinois Statewide Death Index is hosted at the Illinois State Archives website. While Illinois counties frequently have records before 1916, this index only includes those records that were created after state-mandated registration of deaths began in 1916. Even though it covers only thirty-four years, the index is an excellent finding aid.

Certificates for Illinois deaths from 1916-47 can be ordered (at no charge) from the Illinois State Archives through the website (which also includes a regular mailing address for those who do not wish to submit requests online). Requests are limited to two certificates at a time and online requests are not given priority to mail or telephone requests. The Illinois State Archives currently has certificates from 1916 through 1947. Certificates after that time can either be ordered through the Illinois Department of Vital Records or the Recorder's Office in the county in which the event took place.

This wonderful database went online in mid-May. I had used the microfiche edition of the index many times over the past ten years. However, the online index allows searching techniques that are impractical (if not impossible) with the microfiche index and allows for data manipulation not possible with microfiche. So I went to searching.

Before You Search
While it may be tempting to go directly to a database and look only for the search box -- ignoring those other things called words that are also on the page -- this can be a big mistake. It is important to read the sections that explain more about the index and the original records from which it was created. The index is only a finding aid. And like any finding aid, it might not be perfect and the site might explain known limitations of the index. Those who type names into boxes without reading and learning more about the actual database they are searching may make incorrect assumptions about the site and the data it contains.

It Is A String-Based Search
The site will return as "hits" any name that starts with the letters entered in the search box. A search for the last name "Neil" and the first name "Sam" brought the following results:


This is an effective way to perform multiple searches simultaneously. It is necessary to enter at least two characters in the last name box. The string-based search affords the researcher some flexibility when looking for oddball variant spellings. It may be necessary, however, to conduct multiple searches to effectively search for the desired entry.

While searching for my Trautvetter family, I could enter "Tr" in the last name box. I may get too many hits. On a more practical level, I can choose to perform these separate searches:


If I were to choose the county from the drop down list then the results of all surnames beginning with "tr" may not be so onerous.

Additionally for this last name, I also searched:
(Capital "T" and a capital "F" are sometimes misread.)

Spellings Can Be Incorrect
This index is like any other . . . there are spelling variants and errors. Like other indexes, this one was created by humans from hand- written records. Some original certificates are difficult to read. Few early certificates were typed and few of those who completed the certificates by hand used block printing (which is usually easier to read). The script rendition of the name may be easily interpreted in several different (and reasonable) ways. Handwriting problems are compounded by spelling variants based upon phonics, and in some cases, the inability of the deceased's family to speak English. Consider all reasonable variants.


To space or not to space? That is the question. How one answers the question will determine how many results are located.

I was looking for members of the Demare/Desmarais family who lived in the Chicago, Illinois, area. Two variants of this name in Illinois are Demar(e) and DeMar(e). Searching for DeMar (no space) and De Mar (with a space between the "e" and the "M") requires two separate searches and resulted in different matches. Searches for Oneill, O Neill (with the space), and O'Neill (with the apostrophe) also brought about different results. Readers with Mc or Mac surnames may also wish to consider possible data entry variations:

Mc Surname (with a space)
Mac Surname (with a space)

Why Can't They Leave Out Cook County?
I have nothing against Cook County or Chicago. I know a lot of great people who live there, but it does present an occasional problem. While I like being able to search one county at a time, there is one search option I would like: to be able to search all counties except Cook. There are cases where I know Cook County is not an option but the vast majority of my results are for deaths in Cook County.

Copy/Paste Results To Another Program
The data from the results page can be copied and pasted into other Windows applications and used in more sophisticated ways. I copied the data into an Excel spreadsheet and used the sorting and searching features of that program to perform additional analyses not possible with the website. Other database programs will allow for more sophisticated types of analysis. This technique was particularly helpful in "removing" the Cook County entries from some searches.

This approach was also helpful to integrate all my Demar (and variants) into one spreadsheet and then sort all the results in a variety of ways based upon my specific needs. Sorting all the results by first name instead of by last name was especially helpful in this case (since I was looking for a specific first name). One could also sort the results by county or any other field. The results, when given directly from the site, are sorted by surname and then by first name. In some cases this is sufficient for the researcher's needs. In other cases, it is not. In a future column, we'll discuss copying and pasting results in more detail.

What Do These Certificates Contain?
Typically these records include:
--- Name of deceased
--- Date and place of death
--- Place of residence of deceased
--- Age
--- Date and place of birth
--- Parents' names (mother's maiden) and places of birth
--- Informant
--- Date and place of burial
--- Case of death
--- Undertaker

Just because the certificate has the space for a piece of information does not mean the information will be on the certificate. Unknown is a VERY popular word on some of these records! Information on the deceased's date and place of birth and parents may be incorrect as well. The chance of this type of error is increased if the informant was not really acquainted with the deceased. Information on places of birth, names of parents, and places of birth should be cross- referenced with other sources and used as a clue to additional records. A death certificate is usually not a primary source for information on the birth and the names of parents.

Next week: Michael gets some certificates and discusses what he did and did not find.

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,

Used by the author on his website with permission.