When I list the place of death of an individual, should I list the city in which the hospital is located, the place of the burial site, or the location in which the individual last lived, or would I put something else?
Disclaimer: I'm assuming common GEDCOM or textual formats here. If the platform or software you are using requires a place of death in all circumstances, there are maybe special recommendations how to handle cases with missing information.
If you know the place of death (hospital, home, street corner), you should list it. If you only know the last residence or the burial place, you should list this information for what it is: a residence, or a place of burial. If you can infer the place of death with reasonable certainty, I would recommend to list it together with a note or remark. Depending on region, era and family, these three places can be different, so I would in general avoid to guess too much.
As a personal experience and opinion, I'm working with GRAMPS/GEDCOM and my information is mostly from church books. In these records, there are often hints that a person has already deceased, together with the residence of that person. In such cases, I would add an event that the person died before year XYZ, with unknown place (unless I'm quite sure from family context that they died in the residence), and an event for residence before year XYZ.
Whether you are writing a report or entering information into genealogical software, it's easy to overlook that what we are recording is our conclusion about where the death took place. Well-thought-out research isn't a multiple choice test where we are offered a selection of answers, out of which we are asked to pick the best one. It is a process, which begins with a specific, answerable research question. We seek out records which may answer our question, we examine them carefully one by one AND as a group, we consider why they might give conflicitng answers to the question. We analyze our sources, cite what we actually use, and do our best to seek out the original records rather than relying solely on indexes or transcriptions. We take into account that no record, or none of the records that we have found so far, may have an accurate answer to our question.
Let's assume that you "know":
- the city in which the hospital is located (where someone died)
- the place of the burial site
- the location in which the individual last lived
- something else, such as a will or probate papers
Whatever information you have, you have to evaluate the information and the manner by which the information reached you. Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Analysis Process Map is one tool that we can use to examine the information we have found. It is important to understand who created a record, how the record was created, for what purpose it was created, and how much time passed between the time a record was created and the events described in the record. All of these factors have a bearing on the quality of the information in the record. In all cases, it is crucial to ask yourself what hidden assumptions you may have that will influence your reading of a record.
Case 1: You know the name of the hospital where someone allegedly died, and you know the city in which the hospital is located, perhaps from a death certficate, an obituary, or another published source.
In this case, you have direct evidence to the question "Where did [the deceased] die?" However, one record is not prooof. For a death certificate, I might ask: Who is the informant on the death certificate? How likely are they to know the information which is on the certificate? A staff member at the hospital where the deceased reportedly died, who signs the death certificate, is more likely to know the person died there than a person in a newspaper office who writes up death notices, who may be hearing the name of the hospital over the phone from a funeral director.
A further consideration is that we sometimes get multiple copies of seemingly "good" sources with direct evidence. If multiple records exist, are some of those records copies of the others? Did errors creep in when the original was copied?
Case 2: You know where someone is buried. Did you witness the burial, or visit the cemetery? Do you have a headstone photo from an online website? Do you have a death certificate which lists where the deceased was buried that was issued after the burial, or a funeral notice in a newspaper which says the person is going to be buried in a particular cemetery at a future date?
It is easy to assume that the place someone was buried is also where they died, and that they are buried close to home, but bear in mind that people can die anywhere. Also, consider when people died. There is a big difference between thinking about this in the US colonial period vs. the Civil War period, when embalming was coming into use, and it is different again once cremation comes into common practice. Some Irish soldiers who fought and died in the US Civil War were taken back home to be buried in Ireland. The season in which someone dies may also affect where and when they are buried, or whether any record is kept of the burial. A cemetery may have a memorial ("memorial inscription") near where other family members are buried, when the deceased is buried somewhere else, or the location of their remains is unknown.
Case 3: The last residence. Some records may tell you that the person died at home, but without any direct evidence of that kind, consider how easy it is for someone to die in a hospital across a county border, or to be buried in a cemetery across a county border, even if they did die close to home. If I am using an index where the place the death was registered is given but not the place of death, I try to understand the rules involved in the creation of the index and the records being indexed so I can understand what is reasonable to infer from the index.
Case 4: Probate. Wills may give the residence at the time the will was written, which may be far removed in time and place from the location where the person actually died. Probate is generally done in the courts where property is located, which may or may not have anything to do with where the person died.
One notable exception to any rule of thumb about not using probate indexes as an indicator of place of death is the National Probate Calendar in England and Wales, viewable at the Probate Search Service's website, and on some websites like Ancestry and Findmypast. The front matter for the year states that unless the place of death is explicitly stated in the entry, the place of death can be assumed to be at the deceased's home (which is in the calendar entry).
Whatever assumptions you make, or estimates, or guesses, write them out explicitly so you remember why you chose that location for the death place. For example, on my Ancestry online trees, which I use as a kind of sandbox, I created a tag HintBait to remind myself that the person's profile contains information I entered in order to prompt Ancestry's hint algorithms, and in the descriptions, notes, and/or comments, I leave a record for myself of what my guess is and why I am using that estimate to fish for hints.
Writing out summaries of your work in progress is good practice for writing out well-reasoned conclusions, one of the elements of the Genealogical Proof Standard.
The BGC's webiste asks "Why Standards?" and answers this way:
Standards are the best practices for genealogy. They enable all genealogists—not just BCG associates—to come as close as possible to what actually happened in history.
Even if you are "just a hobbyist", standards are valuable. They can help us keep from shooting ourselves in the foot, and keep us on track so that we are actually studying our own family, and not someone else's.
Side note: this answer is about deaths, but researchers who are about to use the 1950 Census, due to be released on 1 April 2022, should be aware that the enumerators' instructions asked for the person's birthplace to be the place of their family's residence, and NOT the hospital where the child was born, if the two were different. (See Claire Kluskens' post, 1950 Census: Form P1, Population and Housing Schedule “Questions for All Persons” on the US National Archives' History Hub.) Quirks like this are a good reminder that we need to understand who created the record, and for what purpose. If the instructions for filling out a record are available to us, reading the instructions can help us understand the records better and help us make a better evaluation of the information contained in them.
Before you have reached a conclusion,you can write out summaries of the problem as you understand it so far in a research journal, or use programs like Evidentia or Lineascope which are aids for evidence analysis. Even if you choose not to write a formal proof statement or a proof summary, keep some kind of record about how you reached your conclusion so you can evaluate things again if new information comes to light. Reviewing prior work is a normal and necessary part of the research process.
- Thomas W. Jones, Ph.D., CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Perils of Source Snobbery,” OnBoard 18 (May 2012).
- QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map by Elizabeth Shown Mills, on her website Evidence Explained
- Death in the wrong place and Following up on death by Judy G. Russell, posted on her blog The Legal Genealogist
- Related question on Genealogy SE: What could explain that somebody is buried half a year after dying?
- The elements of the Genealogical Proof Standards can be found here: Ethics and Standards - Board for Certification of Genealogists
- EAM & GPS: Newsflash! Siblings, not Twins by Elizabeth Shown Mills, from her website Evidence Explained
If you know the city a person died, then that is what should be entered. e.g. If a person lives in Chicago, but died when on vacation in Paris, then Paris is the death place.
If you know they were out of their home city when they died, but you don't know where, then do not enter a death place.
If you know the specific location where a person died, e.g. a hospital or address, do not include that in the death place. You won't get a clean list of people who died by city if you do that. Put the location in notes attached to the death event.
Last residence should not be put in the death record. You should add a residence event and use that, including the date of death, and the address and/or place info.
Burial place should go into the place field for the burial event. The cemetery name and plot location technically should go into the notes field for the burial place.
But some programs make it difficult to search and make lists from event notes, so some people "cheat" and include the cemetery in the burial place so they can more easily make a list of people buried by cemetery within each city. (I have to admit I do this.) But it often causes problems and inconsistencies when merging your data through GEDCOM into other programs or online trees. So do so at your own risk.
Including the hospital or specific location of birth in the birth place is not as important as including the cemetery in the death place because it is much rarer that you'll ever need a list of people born at a specific place, than you will need a list of people buried at a specific cemetery.