I have an ancestor for whom I have very little information for. I am trying to identify the exact birth date for this person. I have a death certificate which lists the birth date as "May 1st", however the gravestone for this person lists "May 4". I am certain that the numbers were readable, so there is definitely a discrepancy in the dates.

Which record should be trusted more? I know that the family supplies the date for both the death certificate and the gravestone, however I would suggest the family would be more concerned that it be correct on the gravestone, as the death certificate might be created in haste.

Is there general guidance for this?

For those who may be curious, attached below are the records.

I missed it before, but the year of the birthdate is actually different by 1 as well. (1962 on the gravestone and 1961 on the death certificate) I am actually more concerned about the year than the actual date, of course.

Gravestone Death Certificate

  • 2
    May I ask, what era are we talking about as to the death, and the birth?
    – GeneJ
    Oct 12, 2012 at 1:24
  • Also, as a general rule, I don't know who supplied the information for the tombstone and only sometimes do I know who supplied the information for the death record.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 12, 2012 at 1:36
  • 1
    I notice this a lot with my relatives also! Always seems to be about a three day discrepancy between the dates. @TomWetmore's answer makes sense, since sometimes the 'informant' is listed as daughter or son-in-law of the deceased... Really, how much second-hand, filtered-down detail would my daughter-in-law know about me? Oct 12, 2012 at 1:38
  • 3
    While not a general occurrence, I have some death dates on the grave stone that are actually the burial date.
    – April
    Oct 12, 2012 at 4:47
  • @CanadianGirlScout - we see that already... I get computer generated junk mail (email and snail-mail) with a munged name, birthday congratulations on the wrong date, etc where collated data is wrong!
    – Andrew
    Oct 12, 2012 at 6:41

8 Answers 8


The information given on a death certificate comes from an "informant," typically a family member who was present when the person died. In my opinion, after examing many, many death certificates, informants are often not that knowledgable about the early life of the deceased, and there are often mistakes. (As I have said many times, "The person who knows just died.") Death certificates provide valuable genealogical evidence, and while they provide PRIMARY evidence of death date and place, at best they provide SECONDARY evidence of birth date and place.

As far as gravestones are concerned I do make the assumption that planning and ordering a gravestone is a more deliberate activity than informing on a death certificate, with plenty of time to check with distant family elders, maybe brothers and sisters of the deceased, about the details of the person's birth. In general I am willing to accept the gravestone date when there is a conflict. And with either date in hand you are well suited to start a search for more evidence of the person's birth.

All this goes by the wayside when the grave marker was put up by a later generation. This is often the case, and for me this puts the preference back onto the death certificate.

I would record both dates (with their sources of course), and I would give preference to the gravemarker information, but I would continue the search for primary evidence of birth. And as in every other aspect of genealogical research I never assume my assumptions are correct! One needs preponderance of evidence, and these two dates, if in conflict, do not give it.

  • +1 for reminding of the PRIMARY/SECONDARY distinction
    – Andrew
    Oct 12, 2012 at 6:43
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    Sorry Tom I disagree with you about which to use I think they are both dubious and should only be a rough guide. Given the example above surely it is better to record May as the probable birth month. Then record the 2 dates as alternatives. From my research it is clear that many people were unsure of their birth days and used whatever suited, I have found documents that show different dates several times throughout an ancestors life. The birth certificate if their is one is usually pretty reliable as one of the parents registered it. Other records less so.
    – Colin
    Oct 12, 2012 at 9:25
  • I registered my fathers so I know the birth date is 100% right. Having all certificates to prove it. So hopefully in this day and age people will start to provide accurate information for the future generations. Jan 11, 2020 at 14:42

Neither of these sources can be depended upon without question. I would cite both records in my notes. Then I would continue my search for other documents or circumstantial details that would help to solve the problem. You may never be able to solve the problem with certainty, but occasionally, obscure sources provide unexpected results, i.e. possibly a church record, doctor/hospital record, obituary, funeral home record, or a newspaper story if the death was of unusual interest. Fully researching other members of the family can sometimes turn up surprising information that could solve the problem. Bible records sometimes document the death of someone who married into the family or even unrelated persons. Never give up!

  • 5
    Readers of this answer need to avoid the temptation to count up sources with conflicting information and choose a "winner". These questions need to be resolved by the quality of evidence not popularity. In this case, the ideal additional evidence would be a letter from the stonemason apologising for his error!
    – Fortiter
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:29

Both tend to be reliable. Unless you have a reason to doubt one, normally you should accept what it says.

If you have information from both the certificate and the gravestone and the information on them match, then you'll be even more confident that they're correct.

If they don't match, then you'll always have doubts until you find a reason for the mismatch. You'll then want to find a third and/or fourth source to confirm. Maybe an obituary or church record. Detective work will be required.


Linking with Tom's answer, I would consider birth dates on BOTH the death certificate and the gravestone to be doubtful, but as pointers to the approximate date.

I would normally only consider a birth certificate to give certainty, but even birth certificates can contain mistakes or errors. This reinforces the principle of never show unwavering trust in a sole-source, however reputable!

Cases such as men lying about their age (to allow military service) or even just family legend can cause dates to be misrecorded.

See also:

  • Consider removing your statement that "Only a birth certificate will give 100% accuracy." Perhaps that statement was written in haste; we know that birth certificates contain errors.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 14, 2012 at 4:41
  • Fair point, GeneJ
    – Andrew
    Oct 14, 2012 at 6:57
  • Thank you, Andrew, but your edit still suggests that the information on a birth certificate offers "usually 100%" certainty of a birth date and location when we know this is not the case. I think eliminating the reference to record information "certainty" would be better. See what you think.
    – GeneJ
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:09
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    What is the legal status of an erroneous birth certificate? Obviously there may be jurisdictional differences but I suspect that your d.o.b (for contracts or inheritance) is what is recorded by the state not the day that it is claimed you drew your first breath!
    – Fortiter
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:10
  • 1
    Further "clarification" added
    – Andrew
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:14

To the point of your question, I am not aware of any general guidance about whether the date of birth reported on a tombstone or death record is more accurate, especially for the circumstance of this case, as there seems a minor variance in the record between the two.

If there is any science or research to back up the notion that one is "better" than another, it would be interesting to see. I may have a little experience bias, but as with other conflicted information, I would work to weigh the research and information.*

Dates of birth and death are an important part of identity. Except in rare circumstance, it is hard to imagine that the difference of a few days between these sources would rise to the level where the identity became in question. Especially so here, given the facts as we know them, including that both differing dates are both made long after the fact.

A conclusion doesn't always require a date certain, either. In the, "is it really necessary to split this hair," there is nothing wrong with entering the birth as "1(or 4) May XXXX" [... or "4(or 1) May XXXX"]. In that case, I would cite both records by giving preference to whichever record I was reporting and noting the minor discrepancy with the alternative record that was in parenthesis.

Updated note: Learning that the two sources differ as to year of birth, you now have some "real meat" :-) to work with.

*That includes that I weigh what I know and don't know. Usually I don't know who supplied the information for a tombstone; only sometimes do I know who supplied the information for the death certificate. Even then I may not be able to weigh the informants credibility as to "date of birth."

Supplemental information: If our birth record location clue is correct (from the death certificate; McLean County, Kentucky), then it seems unlikely a civil record of birth exists for dear Susan. According to n2genealogy, McLean County was formed in 1854; the county has marriage, court, probate and property records from that date forward. According to McLean County GenWeb, "Information and Photos," the "[McLean] County Clerk has birth and death records" from the years 1911-1949.

Trying to locate a baptismal record would involve yet other research.

  • 1
    Family Search claim to have a record for the birth of Susan's sibling at McLean County in 1857 "Kentucky, Births and Christenings, 1839-1960," index, FamilySearch (<familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/FWJC-9HC> : accessed 14 Oct 2012), America F. Spence, 1857. The parents are certainly the same. Curiouser and curiouser.
    – Fortiter
    Oct 14, 2012 at 10:59

The general guidance is that you would prefer the record created closer in time to the relevant event. On that basis, there is not much to choose between them.

You can construct a plausible argument for choosing either but in the absence of further evidence, it would be guesswork.

With the reliable knowledge that the person was born in early May of a known year in a known place, you can now obtain a copy of his or her birth certificate which should be better than either of your current sources (with respect to d.o.b).

  • From the death certificate clue, if Susan was born at at McLean County, Kentucky, is there any reason to believe her birth was recorded?
    – GeneJ
    Oct 14, 2012 at 5:20
  • "Is there any reason to believe her birth was recorded?" Only an inference from general practice. There may have been a legal requirement but even that could have been ignored. Nevertheless IF there is a birth registration, you know where and when to look for it.
    – Fortiter
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:27
  • Information on the McLean County GenWeb site suggests McLean County (the only birth location clue we have) did not begin recording births and deaths until 1911. webpages.charter.net/lecgbe/McLean/mcscene.htm
    – GeneJ
    Oct 14, 2012 at 7:58

As others have suggested, neither are guarenteed to be accurate. Both are items of evidence that must be reconciled with each other, and with other items, in order to form your conclusions.

I encountered an example of this recently where the date-of-birth for a child was deliberately rolled forwards in order to coincide with a second (and bigamous as it happens) marriage of the mother. The second husband was the biological father but she was technically still married to the first husband when the child was born. The father's name was also deliberately misleading. This false d.o.b continued throughout her life.

The birth certificate confirmed the real d.o.b in this case but even that is not always 100%. Assuming the d.o.b is legible (which, as we all know, isn't guaranteed) then there is a reliance on whoever was present to have reported the correct date. I can't claim to have a specific example of a false date but I certainly have birth certificates with an incorrect surname on them.


With regard to the additional information provided, we are able to try to draw some inferences about the sources.

The document has been typed in part and then had hand-written additions (since the reverse order is improbable). This suggests that the person doing the typing was not in possession of all the relevant information at the time. If a family member then contributed what was missing, would he or she have overlooked the d.o.b error?

The deceased is described as an INVILID rather than INVALID casting some doubt on the literacy of the typist (an over-reliance on pronunciation). On the other hand, the dates listed (for birth and death) and the calculated age at death (81 8 8) are internally consistent which reduces the chance of a general lack of care in the preparation.

There is not a lot of detail visible in the stone, but my initial reaction is to ask if this is stylistically appropriate for Kentucky in 1943. Might it have been added to the grave at a later time (when minimalist, flat to ground markers were in vogue). If so, is it possible that the mason will have copies of any instructions given for the job.

On balance, I don't think i have found anything to revise my original view -- there is little reason to prefer one source over another AT THIS STAGE.

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