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In 1987, an uncle, one of my Dad's siblings, disappeared without leaving any word of his whereabouts. At the time, he lived in Denver, Colorado.

Fast forward to 1998, I left the military and took a cross-country trip that led me through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Curious, I searched the computer archives with the help of a volunteer in the library, and was unable to locate a death certificate for my uncle. The volunteer said that they kept records of everyone in the United States who died, regardless of their religious affiliation.

As confirmation of what she was saying, as well as out of curiosity, I found records for relatives that I knew had died, a grandfather and grandmother, a great uncle, and some other relatives. I even called my Mom and Grandmother to verify I was spelling all the names correctly. I located all of them.

My uncle didn't appear in the database, which, based on the confirmations of the other relatives, suggested that he possibly could have still been alive.

In 2011, a family friend did some research and found that he had actually passed away in 1988, a year after he vanished, in California. I found it odd that an organization who had so much information would have missed this particular death.

Why would this information had been excluded, and are there ways that someone could subvert the system and keep their information out of this massive database?

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    Which database was it? A list of death certificates or the Social Security Death Index (SSDI)? – user47 Oct 10 '12 at 4:47
  • @JustinY, that sounds very familiar! I think that was it. It was definitely one of the free ones. I had just gotten out of the Army, had no job, so I wasn't going to spend any money. But my thought was, since the government is heavily involved in SS, that this info would be up to date, especially if he died 10 years previous. – jmort253 Oct 10 '12 at 4:53
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    You can search for this info yourself: go to familysearch.org , enter your uncle's name, and then filter the results to the SSDI collection (Collections -> Birth, Marriage, Death -> Death Index). – Gene Golovchinsky Oct 10 '12 at 5:21
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    @GeneGolovchinsky, I guess after all these years he still never made it in there. Fascinating! – jmort253 Oct 10 '12 at 5:47
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    Have you tried spelling variants on his name? Perhaps something got screwed up. – Gene Golovchinsky Oct 10 '12 at 6:07
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If, as seems likely, the search was done on the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), there are several possible reasons the death was not listed on that index.

Even if he had an SSN, it may not have been known to the people who were around him when the death was recorded. Without a known SSN he wouldn't appear in the index. It's also possible his name was spelled incorrectly. These are more likely if he was fairly new to the area when he died (so around strangers). It may also not have been recorded if there was no (known) survivor to claim benefits.

For all these reasons and others the percentage of deaths recorded in the SSDI is always below 100% and varies by year, and by the age at death, see The Completeness of Death Reporting (pdf) from the SSA. That report shows, for example, that under 62% of deaths in the age range 55-64 were recorded in the Death master File (SSDI) in 1988.

  • In addition, the versions of the SSDI available to the general public have undergone several redactions by the time the list is made available to us. See this post from the Massachusetts Genealogical Council's MGC Sentinel: What is it about genealogists and the SSDI? massgencouncil.org/… – Jan Murphy Dec 16 '13 at 21:16
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Your question "Why did my uncle's death certificate not appear in the Family History Library's archives?" contains several hidden assumptions. I'm going to make these explicit, not because I want to make an example of you, but because we ALL make these mistakes, and I hope this answer will be helpful to everyone. But the short answer to your question is that you didn't make an exhaustive search for the record you were trying to find. You gave up looking far too early to be sure that the FHL didn't have a record.

You didn't make a focused search.

  • You searched "the computer archives", assuming it was one database, without understanding what you were searching, and assumed that there were no limitations on what you might be able to find.

Many providers offer a "Global Search" which is a short-cut way to search all the collections they have to offer. This makes it appear as if all the information is in One Big Database. In reality, global searches are searching a myriad assortment of smaller databases, all of which are limited in some fashion. Even if we did have a national death registry of all deaths in the US, that had complete coverage of everyone who has died in the US as of the time the database was put on line, that database will be obsolete the moment it is published, if not before, because people keep dying, and those new deceased people need to be added to the database. So even though an organization means to have as its goal the acquisition of everything, you have to check the coverage to see when the database was last updated.

The record may not be available to the general public.

  • Especially with records from the 20th century, there are privacy restrictions which may disallow your access to the records you want. It is not safe to assume that a death certificate for any death from 1988 will appear online, or in a repository that any member of the general public is allowed to access, because states often have restrictions on who is allowed to access the record. Access to recent vital records is controlled by the states; one place to find links to more information is Joe Beine's Guide Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records.

The Social Security Death Index is not a complete listing of deaths.

My fellow members who have answered so far have assumed that the search results you found for the deaths of your relatives were from the Social Security Death Index; their answers about why you could not find a record for your uncle are based on that guess. As they have said, the SSDI is not a reliable, complete registry of deaths in the US, and it may not be long before the public no longer has access to it.

Over the last few years, there have been ongoing efforts to take away all public access to the information in the Death Master File; one overview can be found in this article posted by Kimberly Powell on About.com on December 12, 2011: Social Security Administration Removing Names from Public Death Master File (aka SSDI)

As of November 1, 2011, the SSA can no longer disclose the information about deaths for which their only source is a state death record, and they are removing these entries from the SSDI. Powell says:

... there are already changes in the works that will keep as many as 1 million of the 2.8 million deaths expected by the SSA next year out of the public Death Master File, a reduction of almost 36 percent. In addition, the SSA plans to remove about 4.8 million names from the historical SSDI.

A similar article with more links to the relevant announcement of the changes was posted by Diane Haddad on Wednesday, November 2nd, on the Genealogy Insider Blog: SSA to Remove "Protected" Death Records From Death Master File

Indexes aren't perfect.

  • Even if a particular record is listed in a website's version of the SSDI, there is no guarantee that the information recorded in the index will be exactly the way you expect to find it. I only found the SSDI entry for my husband's paternal grandmother by searching for her death date and place of death. Her name was so badly indexed it would have been impossible to find her with a search by name.

How you search makes a difference in your search results.

  • Finally, you say "I found it odd that an organization who had so much information would have missed this particular death." which assumes that the Family History Library had no record of his death. But if you get a negative search result, especially from a global search, that simply means that your search terms resulted in no results. It doesn't mean that a record is not there, only that your search didn't find it. It's not surprising that you didn't find a record when you only made a cursory search, not even taking into account what collections you had looked at.

Now that you have more information about your uncle's death, you might have better results by searching FamilySearch.org's online collection, California, Death Index, 1940-1997 and then using that information to search the SSDI for people whose entries are consistent with that information. The FamilySearch Research Wiki article provides information about that collection and includes research tips:

Tips to Keep in Mind:

  • Compile the entries for every person who has the same surname; this is especially helpful in rural areas or if the surname is unusual.

  • Continue to search the records to identify children, siblings, parents, and other relatives of the deceased who may have died or been buried in the same county or nearby. This can help you identify other generations of your family or even the second marriage of a parent.

  • Repeat this process for each new generation you identify.
  • When looking for a person who had a common name, look at all the entries for the name before deciding which is correct.
  • If you are unable to find the ancestors you are looking for, check for variant spellings of the surnames.
  • Remember that indexes may contain inaccuracies, such as altered spellings, misinterpretations, and optical character recognition errors if the information was scanned.

Some collections of images aren't indexed yet.

  • The other obvious reason that someone might not find a death record by means of a search of an online database is that the Family History Library has the record, but that the record itself isn't indexed and accessible by search.

FamilySearch.org has images available in the collection California, County Birth and Death Records, 1849-1994 (here's the Research Wiki article about the collection) but as I write this, you can only browse the images. So finding the certificate is a two-step process of looking for the person in the index first, then using that information to browse the images.

For items in the FHL where the index is not online and searchable, the process might be as follows:

  1. Use the catalog to find a Register which explains the holdings of the Library
  2. Use the information within to find the index
  3. Use the index
  4. Find and retrieve the proper microfilm roll (this step might also be a multi-step process)
  5. Search the microfilm

If at first you don't succeed, search, search again.

If you're now wondering how I'm expecting you to find your uncle's record when you didn't know his place or date of death, yes, the answer is, if the record is not online, we have to do it the old-school, brute-force way: by going through the catalog, seeing what the library has, searching for all the collections of death records, and searching them all, one-by-one. And (most important of all) keeping a record of what we searched and how we searched, so if we give up and hire a professional later on, they can see exactly what we searched and what search terms we used. But it's only after we've done an exhaustive search, and consulted with a librarian or other professional (and not just a volunteer) that we can say with any confidence that the Family History Library doesn't have it.

And even then, the answer "the Family History Library doesn't have it" really means "I couldn't find it on the day I looked" -- because as far as I know, they are acquiring new records all the time.

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To emphasize what was reported above, his death may not have been reported to the Social Security Administration if he never received any Social Security benefits (because he was too young) and if there was no survivor to claim his benefits.

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