17 July 2012

Death in all its details

Obituaries and death records often provide unexpected details that require further research.
Obituaries often give details about relationships, education, memberships, occupations, and even interests, but some gloss over death itself, with words like “after a lingering illness” or “suddenly.” Sometimes you can tell the cause of death by “in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to” a specific charity, such as a cancer foundation or a local hospice.
In some cases, cause of death is the headline, such as “Charlton Girl Dies of Spinal Meningitis.” Interestingly, when I contacted the cemetery for information on the girl’s family plot, I was given an official burial (or removal) permit that notes the cause of death was acute mastoiditis instead. The nine-year-old girl had been at the hospital for two months.
Fifteen years later, the girl's mother died in Connecticut—according to the removal, transit, and burial permit—of “compound fracture skull, laceration of brain (gunshot wound – suicide).” She was 42 and apparently remarried, though her gravestone shows her first husband’s surname. No obituary was written, but there must be police reports that I haven’t tracked down yet.
Over the last few weeks, I have been indexing death records for the FamilySearch Indexing project. Since cause of death is not needed for indexing, I don’t always look at the physician’s notes. However, a few were memorable.
  • A 23-year-old married man died at the local drive-in theater of a severed spinal cord. How? He died of a gunshot wound.
  • A 27-year-old man died of cancer, after suffering from the disease for seven years. At his young age, he already was a widower.
  • In 1937, two men died in a highway car crash. One died of a punctured lung, though the physician also noted he had “broken legs, etc.” The other died of shock, having broken both arms and legs.
Imagine if these were your relatives. You’d be digging into the newspaper accounts, police inquest reports, and probate records, trying to fill in the blanks. And, oh my, what stories would you find?!

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