9 Ways to Find Out If Someone Died

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Hungry Ghost Celebration (Yulan) is a Chinese festival that takes place on the 15th night of the 7th lunar month. The month-long commemoration was supposed to be a time for spirits to come out of their realm to wander.

People appease the spirits' appetites by burning money and incense, preparing three meals a day, and erecting memorial tables. The event is completed by floating colorful lanterns along waterways, which are thought to ward off ghosts.

While this holiday is meant to leave a positive influence on people, it can't be denied that it sometimes won't be enough for others. When this is the case, we're left with a question in mind: How do we actually grieve someone we didn't know had died?

Check Online Obituaries

The first step is to look for an online obituary to confirm whether someone has died. It's a written notice of a person's death that contains identifiers such as family members, achievements, and more. Previously, they have been found in newspapers or other local media, but they are posted online nowadays.

This allows the family to inform the community about a relative's death. You may also use the following information as a starting point for research.

  • Married name: Find out your ancestor's last name when she died, especially if she lived in a country where women often changed surnames after marriage. For example, Samantha Williams married a guy with the last name Webb. After her second marriage to a guy called Bonneville, she chose not to remarry. Samantha Bonneville may be the name on her obituary.
  • Death date range: You may be able to get the precise date of death from a family document or death certificate. When you don't have these records, it's still possible to make a good guess using other documents. For instance, your ancestor most likely died between the years of 1851–1861 if she appears in the 1851 England census with her spouse as a widower in the 1861 census.
  • A place: A local government office or church may be able to provide you with information about the person's last known residence. They usually keep an index that details every resident's information, which will narrow down your search.

Search Social Media

Social media sometimes publishes news before it's generally known, and it may function as a storehouse of information long after a person has died. It's typical for families to postpone funeral announcements and ceremonies, making it harder for the public to learn about a loss.

Certain cultures urge immediate burial, limiting time for sorrow and public announcement. Thus, loved ones have to take advantage of social media to post their tributes and memorials of the deceased.

Although you should search each platform, since Facebook is the world's biggest social networking site, using it as a starting point can greatly increase your chances of finding a specific person.

Simply put the person's name into the search box and select the People tab to find them before tapping See All as the results show. If you think you found an acquaintance with contact to the individual you're looking for, click on their profile to see their Friends List to collect more information.

An alternative to using social media is to run a reverse phone number search by simply putting in the phone number of the person you're searching for. When a person's Facebook account is accessed from an unusual device or location, Facebook will send a text message to notify the user, so phone numbers are often associated with accounts.

Use a Genealogy or Historical Site

Most archives offer at least some digital materials, but don't overlook the online catalogs that permit you to search through massive amounts of priceless genealogical and historical information.

Some websites you can look into are:

Shoah Names Database

In all, Yad Vashem and its collaborators have compiled the names and biographical information of about 4.5 million Jewish Holocaust victims. Over 2.6 million Holocaust survivors and their descendant's testimonies are included in this free collection. Some of these documents date back as far as the 1950s and contain information like photographs and names.

In 2014, Yad Vashem expanded its Names Database to include Holocaust-era Jews. Some victims' fates were unknown, but new information was released. Nearly half of the 1.5 million Jews present were evacuated or fled during Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941. Others went to ghettos or camps. Most likely, not all of them lived and efforts to get solid information on them continues through this initiative.

Missouri State Archives

The Missouri State Archives includes a searchable online catalog and finding aids. Online databases and indexes include coroner's reports, naturalization documents, birth certificates, land patents, and death records. Missouri Digital Heritage has about 6.8 million records from the state archives, library, and other organizations.

Fold3's Published Pennsylvania Archives

Fold3.com offers free access to digitized pictures of the Pennsylvania Archives series' pages. It includes citizenship, military, land, tax, baptismal, and marriage records, as well as ship passenger lists and other material pertinent to Pennsylvania history and genealogy in 138 volumes issued by the Commonwealth (in ten series).

Look for Government Records

Social Security Death Index (SSDI) is a massive registry of persons whose deaths were recorded to the Social Security Administration in the United States (SSA) database. Survivors may have reported a death to Social Security to discontinue benefits. Most of this index's data (98%) goes back to 1962, however some data extends back to 1937.

The record may additionally contain a particular state or nation residency code for those who died outside of the United States.

Understanding the various search features is critical to narrowing down your search results. Start with a few facts and then add more if you need to fine-tune your search results by experimenting with the following.

  • Input the Last Known Residence. The person's last known address when the benefit was sought for. If you're having trouble finding a person, try searching without using their last address. Location is given as a ZIP code with the corresponding town/city. Also, keep in mind that town/city borders have altered throughout time, so it'll be better to cross reference it with additional sources.
  • Input the Last Benefit Information. Assuming the person was married, the last residence and benefit could've been the same address. It's a field you should leave blank for your search, since the last benefit might have been given to anybody. This information might be particularly useful in the hunt for relatives, since next of kin generally received the last benefit.
  • Input the State of Issue. The first three digits of an SSN identify the state in which it was issued, however there have been a few cases when the same digits were used for several states. Check this list if you know where your ancestor lived when they acquired their SSN. Be mindful that persons frequently resided in one state but had their SSN issued from another.

Pro Tip: Many SSDI indexes support search requests using wildcards. If you typed in Alex* Davis, it would return results for Alex Davis, Alexander Davis, Alexandra Davis, and so on. Review the SSDI search engine's rules to know what sorts of wildcards are permitted.

Search Newspapers

The Proquest Obituaries database contains more than ten million death announcements and obituaries from the nation's biggest newspapers going back to 1851, such as:

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Chicago Defender
  • New York Times
  • Boston Globe
  • Chicago Tribune
  • Atlanta Constitution
  • Washington Post

Any US residents are free to access the site remotely using a valid PIN and library card. In case you don't have one, non-residents can approach a local library and sign up for a library card.

Pro Tip: When searching for articles on a given topic, it might be helpful to consider whether the term you're looking for was used in that historical period, like offensive phrases that used to be common back then.

Consider using terminology like "Colored" or "Negro" while searching for historical writings concerning Black people or African-Americans between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Visit the Local Courthouse

While most courts have an online presence, the records are unlikely to be digitized if the individual you're searching for died decades ago, so the best approach is to visit the courthouse in person.

Generally, the county that's responsible for the probated estate is located in the person's last known residence, or in some cases, the county where the deceased person owned real estate. 

After locating the proper county and seeing the probate court docket online, the following procedures are normally required to receive a copy of the probate documents or will:

  1. Apply in person to request document copies or send a request through mail or fax to the courthouse.
  2. Pay for a minimal fee for the copies based on the requested number of pages.
  3. For online requests, you'll provide a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Read More: What Probate Is and How to Avoid It

If you can't find the probate court's dockets online, go to the court and ask for help. Usually, the clerk can search the estate using the decedent's legal name. After inspecting the probate file, you can get copies of its relevant pages.

Talk to Family Members

The simplest technique to find out if a person has died is to simply ask the individual's family and close friends. Bear in mind that this strategy could induce feelings of grief or other unpleasant emotions, so this approach demands compassion and sensitivity on your behalf.

Also, it's critical to examine one's relationship to the person who may have died. It's possible that when someone brings up a person who's still alive, it'll be received with pity. It's normal that questions about the potential loss could cause a range of emotions from people who weren't close to the individual.

Go to an Archive Facility

The state or country's archive facilities house first-hand documents, public records, and historical information. Every state and country has their own archive facility. These are a place for storing public records, historical information, and other first-hand documents. Even if most of them are digitized, it'll be better to go in-person.

While archive facilities don't cover recent deaths, they're known for being a resource goldmine about deaths that took place decades ago. 

For instance, the Alaska State Archives was formed in 1970 to conserve and make Alaska's historical government papers widely accessible. The federal and state documents, District and Territorial courts' reports, and the governors' papers were moved under National Archives guidelines. In 2014, the Anchorage Branch of the National Archives closed, transferring papers from the Alaska Railroad Corporation and several district and territorial courts to the facility.

As of 2016, Alaska's State Archives hold the state's largest collection of archival materials and contains many records on persons, including:

  • Vital Statistics (1816–1998)
  • Probate Index (1873–1960)
  • Naturalization Records (1888–1972)
  • World War I Veterans (1913–1923)
  • Teacher Records (1917–1959)

Before you can get your hands on the materials, you'll need to have a registry card or fill out an online form. It's also the staff's discretion to request for an ID to help in the investigation if a theft took place.

You'll also be obliged to fill out a request form to assist the staff in tracking what records are checked out, the intended use, and for how long. More importantly, it informs you of any legal obligations that must be considered while using the materials.

Word of Mouth

Listening is also a great alternative. It may sound silly, but it works. If you knew the person who died, family and friends will probably accommodate your questions surrounding the person's death. Just be sure to do so in a sympathetic and respectful way. Also, remember that some people may choose to ignore your questions, especially if they bring back painful memories.

More Tips for Finding Out If Someone Died

As we grow older, it's common for friends to become strangers and to even be estranged from a few relatives. Since few deaths make the news, it’s not always possible to find out when a person has died until you use the resources above.

If those aren't enough, we hope that these two additional tips will ease some of the burden and stress during your search.

Use other name spellings or variations

If you just search for someone by one name or spelling, you're losing out. They may have had multiple different names and spellings during their lives. So look for name variants. Last and first names are often misspelled in official documents because individuals weren't as educated as they are now. Sometimes, a name was written phonetically or was misspelled by mistake.

In other cases, a person could have altered their surname to fit a new culture, to make it easier to remember, or to sound elegant. The surname's roots might reveal prevalent spellings, while surname distribution research can identify the most common surname variant. Meanwhile, computerized genealogical databases include soundex search or "search for variants" options.

Verify your data's accuracy

Microfilms, photocopies, and digital copies are likely to contain accurate information. Indexes, abstracts, published family histories, and transcriptions are more prone to transcription mistakes or missing information than uncompiled records. So it's reasonable to track back to the original source. 

To do so, send an email to the data contributor, whether it's the personal family tree's author or database creator, and respectfully request their source information. Many scholars are hesitant to disclose source citations openly, but they might be willing to share this to you in private.