My father-in-law was a merchant marine who died at sea in 1952 under mysterious circumstances.

How can we obtain the cause of death?

We have not been able to get a certificate due to privacy laws and we do not know the state in which he died.

My father-in-law lived in Bronx, NY.

I was able to obtain some military record info from the National Archives in Washington, D.C and I have also searched numerous on-line websites.

I cannot find a death record anywhere.

I have not found any newspaper reports on his death but there were apparently lawyers involved.

The law firms are no longer around since this occurred in 1952.

  • What country did he live in? What year was he born? The answer to the second of these questions may mean that we need to take care in how we try to help because he might fall under our privacy policy in the help center. What are the privacy laws which you say you have already encountered? We need to know more about what you have tried and where you are currently stuck. Have you found any newspaper reports about his death?
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 4:01
  • What year was he born?
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 0:54

1 Answer 1


Firstly, querying the U.S. Coast Guard would be your first source for information about your father-in-law if he was a U.S. citizen sailing as a merchant seamen on U.S. flagged vessels. In 1952 he would have held U.S. Coast Guard-issued "Seaman" papers (or a U.S.C.G-issued "Officers License") to be able to be signed-on as a crewmember in any department (Deck, Engine, or Steward) on any Coast Guard regulated ship. As far as I know there is/was no distinction made as to whether the Semen's papers were for inland (lakes and rivers) employment or for deep-water (ocean-going) employment.

Since you are related to your father-in-law only through marriage, just how much information about your father-in-law the U.S. Coast Guard will give to you will be determined by the pertinent U.S. Privacy laws. Having an attorney to represent your interests to the Coast Guard might be necessary -- the attorney you hire doesn't have to be a maritime attorney (expensive!), but should be someone who has some experience or familiarity in appearing before U.S. government agencies.

Next, since the U.S. merchant shipping industry is highly unionized, your father-in law would also have had to be a member of one of the maritime labor unions representing merchant seamen. Therefore, your second line of inquiry would be to determine (if possible) what ship's department your father-in-law was employed in. With that information in hand you can query the appropriate union (or unions) which your father-in-law would have had to be a member of, given the ship's department in which he was employed.

Next, since you have evidently already contacted the National Archives regarding your father-in-laws military service, I would suggest that you contact them again, this time telling the docents that you are interested in information about your father-in-law's employment as a U.S. merchant seaman. I know for a fact that the National Archives has records of seaman's documents issued to seamen that they can show in lieu of being able to provide their actual passport. Because merchant vessels' masters habitually kept seamen's passports in their office safe during seamen's term of employment , this official U.S. in-lieu-of document was provided at no cost to seamen so they would have some way of demonstrating their citizenship to whoever, whenever, they were away from their ship. Those documents also include a passport-type photo of the seaman, if that's something that would also be of interest to you (as it was to me while doing my own family research there).

The docent's may also be able to help you find relevant merchant shipping records in the Archives, for example ships' crew lists if you know what ships your father-in-law sailed in.

And speaking of knowing what ships your father in law sailed in, he may have kept a few or all of his "ship discharge papers", which master's have been required for many, many, years to give to seamen who have completed the terms and conditions of their shipboard employment.

To summarize, I would advise you to contact the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union (the MM&P) headquarters in Linthicum, Maryland. The MM&P nominally represents vessel deck officers; if your father-in-law was a deck officer they will be able to help you further. But if not, I'm sure if you write to or speak with someone there they'll provide you with contact information for more appropriate maritime unions (such as the S.I.U., for example).

And then finally, keep up and further your contact with the National Archives in D.C. The docents there can be a great help in answering your questions and in your research on how your father-in-law died.

  • Because your FIL was a merchant seaman who died aboard a vessel at sea, the Master of the vessel would have been required by law to send a report of his death to the vessels owners. They in turn would have reported that death to the U.S. Coast Guard, who would in turn have conducted (again by law) an investigation into your FIL's death at sea. As all such Coast Guard records are public records, so you have the right to access to them. Contact the MM&P's office in Maryland for further help in how you would go about obtaining USCG records of their investigation into your FIL's death at sea. Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 14:28
  • As an added note, I know from my own experience with the Coast Guard that under U.S. agency law anyone can represent you in hearings or other actions before a U.S. agency, like the U.S. Coast Guard (which is an agency of the U.S. Treasury Department). The person you choose to represent you (including yourself, of course), does not have to be an attorney. So don't be intimidated by Coast Guard personnel if you think they are not as helpful as they could be in helping you in this query of yours. They also have other records of your FIL's maritime employment that could be of help to you. Commented Dec 17, 2016 at 21:46

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