Find Family History in Funeral Home Records

Registration book at a North Haven, Connecticut, funeral home.
Getty / WIN-Initiative

Funeral home records can be a valuable, but often underutilized, resource for family historians and other researchers trying to identify a date of death, or the names of relatives, for a particular individual. This is especially true in localities where funeral home records may pre-date state or local laws requiring the recording of deaths. While funeral homes are generally private businesses, their records can still often be accessed for family history research, if you know where to look and who to ask.

What Can I Expect to Find in Funeral Home Records?

Funeral home records vary greatly by location and time period, but typically contain basic information about where a person died, names of surviving relatives, the dates of birth and death, and the place of burial. More recent funeral home records may include more in-depth information, such as details on parentage, occupation, military service, organizational memberships, the clergyman's name and church, and even the name of the deceased's insurance company.

How to Locate the Funeral Home

To determine the undertaker or funeral home who handled the arrangements for your ancestor or other deceased individual, search out a copy of the death certificate, obituary notice or funeral card to see if the undertaker or funeral home is listed. The cemetery where your ancestor is buried may also have a record of the funeral home which handled the arrangements.

City or business directories from the time period may be of assistance in learning which funeral homes were in business in the area. If that fails, the local library or genealogical society may be able to help you identify likely funeral homes. Once you locate a name and city, you can get the actual address of the funeral home through the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors, or through the phone book.

How to Get Information from a Funeral Home

Many funeral homes are small, family owned businesses with few people on staff and little time to handle genealogy requests. They are also privately-owned businesses, and are under no obligation to provide any information. The best way to approach a funeral home with a genealogy or other non-urgent request is to write a polite letter with as many details as you can provide and the specific information for which you are searching. Offer to pay for any time or copying expenses that are incurred, and enclose a SASE for their reply. This allows them to handle your request when they have the time, and increases the chances of receiving a response - even if the answer is "no."

What if the Funeral Home is Out of Business?

If the funeral home is no longer in business, don't despair. Most defunct funeral homes were actually taken over by other funeral homes who will often keep the older records. Funeral home records can also be found in library, historical society, or other archival collections and, increasingly, online (do a search for "funeral home" plus the [name of the locality] in which you are searching).

Was a Funeral Home Even Used?

Funeral records in the United States generally date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The practice of embalming was not very prevalent prior to the Civil War and the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Most funerals prior to that time (and even more recently in more rural areas) generally took place at the decedent’s home or a local church, with burial taking place within one to two days of death. The local undertaker was often a cabinet or furniture maker, with a side business making caskets. If no funeral home was operating in the locality at the time, it is still possible that business records of the local undertaker may be found preserved as a manuscript collection at a state library or local historical society. Some records of a funeral can also often be gleaned from probate records, which may include receipts for funeral expenses such as the casket and digging of the grave.