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Most death records have a place where 'cause of death' is recorded. I have recently discovered that a number of my relatives committed suicide. It was always acknowledged that they died, but never spoken aloud how it happened. Now, interviewing older members of the family, I am discovering the truth. Even the newspaper articles of the time did not name the true cause of death - only something like "...found dead at home," which could mean anything. So, is it crass to now record for future generations to see how someone died?

In some cases, this information is there if I link to the original source, but I also transcribe details into my genealogy software. Is this something that I should leave blank in my typed transcription, but (obviously) someone could find if they dug deep enough through my research and went to the original source? Or would that just create inconsistencies, since I find most causes of death rather interesting and do type them in.

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    While I can understand the motivation behind the question, this is very close to seeking a poll of opinion rather than a reasoned answer.
    – Fortiter
    Nov 4 '12 at 15:13
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The GEDCOM standard includes Cause of Death, and it is included as a fact type in most major genealogy programs, such as Family Tree Maker, and online sites such as ancestry.com.

Therefore, I would say that it is not crass to record cause of death. It is just a fact. In many cases, future generations would want to know for insight into their own health history. Even a suicide can yield insight since it might indicate a family tendency toward depression.

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I would not regard it as crass to record such facts. Rather the opposite in fact - it would not honour their memories to ignore the sad fact of how they met their death.

What is a rather different question is whether you should make such information freely available while there is anyone alive who might be upset by these facts. If your software allows it, you might wish to consider marking up such a cause of death as "confidential" and this would give you the option to omit publishing the fact if the report were destined for general consumption.

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    Most programs have a 'private' tag that excludes this information from reports. Be very careful about sharing (e.g. uploading a gedcom file to an online tree) the database file as this could contain the sensitive information.
    – Sue Adams
    Nov 4 '12 at 11:58
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    My software (FamilyHistorian) allows individual phrases within notes, etc, to be marked up for privacy, so that all the note (e.g.) with the Death tag goes into reports except for the marked up bits - assuming you've requested their exclusion. So that's another level of confidentiality, rather than excluding the whole tag.
    – AdrianB38
    Nov 4 '12 at 16:24
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Religious reasons

Catholics who commit suicide cannot be buried in consecrated land (which basically rules out burial in churchyards), and generally could also not be given a funeral service. The same was true for Anglicans until 2017. I couldn't comment on other sects of Christianity, but it's fair to say that this is true for a number of them.

If your relative committed suicide, there's a double-whammy of losing them and of wondering why they felt they had to do it. If on top of that you can't even have a funeral for them and a headstone in the graveyard, and the priest is going to tell you that your relative is going to Hell to burn in eternal torment, that's something no-one needs. So as with so many things, it's very normal (both historically and even today) for people to find ways to work humanely around the inhumane rules of the Church. In the case of suicides, that simply amounts to "don't ask, don't tell".

Suicide methods

For people who gassed themselves or poisoned themselves, the body is probably still in decent condition. If someone has committed suicide in a way which leaves their body in a bit of a mess though - a gun in the mouth, for instance, which takes off the entire back of the skull - then these are details which don't need to be publicised. There's no public interest in these details, only cheap thrills. The family don't need to be told all the details unless there's a real need, and they certainly don't need everyone else in the community knowing.

Or perhaps the method itself is an issue which it would be better for the family if it wasn't shared. Auto-erotic asphyxiation is one thing. Or I personally knew someone who practised self-bondage; we believe they slipped whilst tied and were strangled by accident, rather than intending to commit suicide or practising auto-erotic asphyxiation, but they were still dead. Again, coroners tend to limit what they publicise about these cases in the interests of the family.

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    I think you may have misunderstood the question, which is about recording the cause of death in genealogy software. Jul 2 at 16:49
  • @semipaiscuba Here's the problem though. Suppose I record the details in my genealogy notes (paper or digital) and don't share them during my lifetime for ethical reasons. What happens after I'm gone and my notes fall into other hands? How long should the 'privacy hole' last, and what about the 'right to be forgotten' issue which some people assert these days? Anything we record (whether explicit or by breadcrumbs) we make discoverable by someone else.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 2 at 17:49
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    Hi, Graham, welcome to the site! I do agree with the previous comment, that you haven't addressed the main question of whether one should record the cause of death in one's research notes or software if the cause of death is known or inferred.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 2 at 17:53
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    @JanMurphy Those are good questions, and it may be worth posting a new question about current best-practice in that regard. However, this question was rather more specific (and, as noted in the comment on the question, "... very close to seeking a poll of opinion rather than a reasoned answer") Jul 2 at 20:29
  • If you have obtained the cause of death from a death certificate that is available online, then I think you can consider that that information is public knowledge. I have one where the death certificate records some graphic details, but I have merely entered "of suicide by shotgun" in the Description field of the genealogy software.
    – shoover
    Jul 2 at 23:21

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