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Another question (What are the differences between PA state file numbers and certificate numbers?) reminded me of a family mystery: why can't any of us find a death certificate for Ferenc Borbiró?

We have his gravestone on Find A Grave, complete with photograph (Memorial 153049245); it says he died in 1962. That fits with family recollection (such as it is). We have the location of both the gravestone and the Hungarian old folk's home (https://bethlen.com/history/): Ligonier, Westmoreland county, Pennsylvania.

I have looked through the death indexes provided by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. I've even checked under Ferenc and Frank (in case the surname and given name got switched [see below]), and under both parts of his birth surname (Vojnich Zelich), even though nobody in the U.S. is likely to have known about that. (He changed his family name in 1931, and came to the U.S. in 1956.) I've also checked 1961 and 1963, in case the gravestone is off by a year.

The answer to the aforementioned question says that Ancestry's index of the Pennsylvania death certificates is separate from the PHMC's, so I've searched there, too, in every variation I can think of, but have still come up empty.

All this leaves me wondering: is it possible that he simply doesn't have a death certificate? Could the Bethlen Home have forgotten to submit the paperwork? Would anyone have noticed, if they did? Or is there some other possibility that I haven't thought of?


Hungarian puts the surname before the given name, so indexes can get things reversed. Ferenc's Find A Grave memorial used to be an example of this error, because his gravestone has his name in Hungarian.

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The FamilySearch Research's Wiki's article United States Record Finder gives the following suggestions for finding dates and places of death (and burial, but you may have that already). They separate their suggestions into two batches:

Try first:

  • Vital Records
  • Church Records
  • Obituaries
  • Cemeteries
  • Town Records

Then try:

  • Newspapers
  • Probate Records
  • Bible Records
  • Military Records

I am guessing that 'newspapers' in the second category refers to articles that are not obituaries. That could include legal notices about his estate, writeups of the funeral, etc. as well as the obituary itself. Think broadly and include 'periodicals' for that second group (employee newsletters, frateral organization newsletters, etc.) as well as newspapers.

You have a cemetery listing, so on the principle of 'start with what you know', try contacting Ligonier Valley Cemetery to see if they have any records. They might have a record of the date of burial (if he is buried there, and the marker is not simply a memorial), and perhaps of the Funeral Home in charge.

If you can find the name of the funeral home, see if they are still in business, or if their records were kept by a local archive or historical society. Records there might include a copy of the death certificate, or give you other clues that would lead you to it. The same goes for the Bethlen Home for the Elderly - do records survive for that period, and if so, which repository holds them?

Check local historical and genealogical societies and archives. Is there a town historian? Were death records kept at a town or county level? (See the Resources list at the bottom of this answer for other indexes you could consult.)

It appears that the Bethlen Home and the Cemetery are in the same county. Could he have died at a medical facility over the county line? In that case, death records might exist in more than one county.

It seems unlikely to me that there would be no death certificate at all, since by the 1960s some kind of paperwork would have been required for a body to be buried or cremated. Find out what the procedures were for that period, and then work backwards from the cemetery to see what you can discover. For a guide to searching Historical Pennsylvania state statutes, see the resources link for Judy G. Russell's post A gift for Keystone State researchers.

In my husband's family, I was only able to find one of his relatives in the Social Security Death Index by searching for the known location of death and her dates. Once I had the entry, I could see that her surname had been misspelled. You may not be able to figure out why you can't find him in the big index until you have the death certificate in hand.

Ancestry's Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1969 can be viewed by browsing. Certificates are filed by number. Sometimes we don't find records in their expected chronological sequence because they are misfiled. We don't know how the indexes were generated, but is it possible that the year of death was misread? Have you tested Ancestry's database to see if there are entries that have no names? Assuming an index is complete is a common cause of not finding a certificate.

Side note: This may not be relevant to your question, but users of Ancestry's 5-year indexes for Massachusetts should be aware that the OCR reading is not perfect. Entries for two people sometimes are combined, surnames get assigned to the wrong lines, entries get skipped, etc. Do not assume your person is not in the index without looking at the original images.

One other thought: this is more likely to happen with a birth, but could his death certificate have been amended, perhaps to correct his name? Amended certificates might show up in a separate index, or not be in the main sequence, or be listed in a year you don't expect. Local historians and archivists, the local historical societies, the local genealogical societies, and local reference librarians would be more likely to know about coverage issues for local records, but you could also try looking in research guides about doing research in the state.

Resources:

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    Other than the bit about an amended certificate being filed elsewhere, none of this actually offers any possible explanations for why we can't find him in the state where he lived and was buried.
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 26, 2023 at 13:25
  • @JPmiaou Answers here have to be relevant to your question and to others who may come later who have similar problems. I wrote the answer not to speculate but to give suggestions for other means of finding the certificate. Am I reading your question correctly, that your research effort so far has been to search two indexes? Have you evaluated the indexes, and if so, how?
    – Jan Murphy
    Aug 26, 2023 at 18:49
  • @JPmiaou I have updated my answer with an example of how I found someone in the SSDI without searching for them by name, and added Crista Cowan's video on evaluating Ancestry databases to the top of the resources list.
    – Jan Murphy
    Aug 26, 2023 at 18:53
  • The (collective) research efforts have also included digging through half a dozen boxes of family paperwork, phone calls to the Bethlen Home (they couldn't/wouldn't help), a cemetery trip by my brother-in-law (unfortunately ill-timed: the office was closed), and innumerable online searches of every available database.
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 27, 2023 at 12:28
  • Unfortunately, I'm just the man's step-grandchild-in-law, and neither that relationship nor my spouse's are listed as eligible to order a death certificate from the state (health.pa.gov/topics/certificates/Pages/Death-Certificates.aspx).
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 27, 2023 at 12:35
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That the death cert isn't findable in either of the indexes is puzzling, and implies that many transcription errors would have had to occur simultaneously - which is counter-intuitive given that most certificates at that time and place were typed, rather than hand-written.

However, it's unlikely that the cemetery would have allowed a burial without having a death certificate in hand, and they may still have one on file. I would start there, and with the nursing home (the likely informant for the death cert). The cemetery records should also include the name of the funeral home, who would have provided the death cert to the cemetery, and who may also still have one on file.

Also, somebody paid for the headstone (even if they got the names reversed), and the cemetery may also have a record of who paid the invoice. If the dates on the headstone aren't correct, the most likely explanation is that it was placed some years after the event (not common, but it does happen).

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    The stone doesn't have the names reversed in error: it's in Hungarian, which puts the surname first.
    – JPmiaou
    Aug 16, 2023 at 4:35
  • @JPmiaou Could you add this information to the question as well? If I'm reading your question correctly, you've already taken this into account and searched the index both ways in case the surname was placed into the first name field and vice-versa, but it would be good to clarify that.
    – Jan Murphy
    Aug 16, 2023 at 17:25

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