Nature of a certificate
Each governmental jurisdiction prescribes the form of the document for use in its purview and the procedures necessary to legally produce it. One purpose of the certificate is to review the cause of death to determine if foul-play occurred. It may also be required in order to arrange a burial or cremation, to prove a person's will or to claim on a person's life insurance.
Before issuing a death certificate, the authorities usually require a certificate from a physician or coroner to validate the cause of death and the identity of the deceased. In cases where it is not completely clear that a person is dead (usually because their body is being sustained by life support), a neurologist is often called in to verify brain death and to fill out the appropriate documentation. The failure of a physician to immediately submit the required form to the government (to trigger issuance of the death certificate) is often both a crime and cause for loss of one's license to practice. This is because of past scandals in which dead people continued to receive public benefits or "voted" in elections.
Death certificates may also be issued pursuant to a court order or an executive order in the case of individuals who have been declared dead in absentia. Missing persons and victims of mass disasters (such as the sinking of the RMS Lusitania) may be issued death certificates in one of these manners.
In some jurisdictions, a police officer is allowed to sign a death certificate. This is usually when the cause of death seems obvious and no foul play is suspected, such as a home accident or SIDS. In such cases, an autopsy is rarely performed.
The Shipman case
In the United Kingdom, in 2000, the mass-murderer Doctor Harold Shipman was found to have issued false medical certificates of death, which resulted in death certificates being issued for his victims, without the suspicious circumstances of their deaths coming to light. Following the public enquiry into that case, all medical certificates of death (except those issued in respect of individuals dead in absentia) must now be validated by an independent medical examiner.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, death certificates are considered public domain documents and can therefore be obtained for any individual regardless of the requester's relationship to the deceased. Other jurisdictions take a different view, and restrict the issue of certificates.
In the United States, certificates issued to the general public for deaths after 1990 may in some states be redacted to erase the specific cause of death (in cases where death was from natural causes) to comply with HIV confidentiality rules. In New York State, for instance, the cause of death on a general death certificate is only specified if death was accidental, homicide, suicide, or declared in absentia; all other deaths are only referred to as "natural". All states have provisions, however, whereby immediate family members, law enforcement agencies, and governmental authorities (such as occupational health and safety groups) are able to obtain death certificates containing the full cause of death, even in cases of natural death.
Registration in the UK is organised separately in the constituent countries, and also in all crown possessions.
England and Wales
In England and Wales, registration of deaths began in 1837. The death certificate lists when and where a person died, the name and surname, sex, date of birth (or age on older certificates), occupation, address, cause of death, as well as information about the person who reported the death. Beginning in 1874, a doctor’s certificate was necessary for the issuance of a death certificate (prior to that, no cause of death needed to be given).
Registration began in 1855. Certificates are rather more detailed than in England and Wales. For example, the maiden surname is always given for females.
Since 1927, Stillbirths (beyond 24 weeks gestation) have been registered separately, in a register that is closed from public access. A single stillbirth registration takes the place of both birth and death registration for the stillborn infant. Prior to 1960 such certificates gave no cause of death.
Stillbirth certificates can only be ordered by the mother or father of the deceased contacting the General Register Office by phone or letter. In the event of the parents both having died, a sibling can order the certificate if they can provide the dates of death for both parents.
A 2007 article in People magazine revealed that in the case of a stillbirth, it is not standard practice to issue both a birth certificate and a death certificate. This has caused considerable grief to parents of stillborn babies (for whom the parents had often chosen a name), because they don't become parents unless the baby survives birth, but they still feel grief for an infant that had never officially existed.
- Mortality Data from the U.S. National Vital Statistics System - See Methods - Data collection - for copies of death certificates and how to fill them.
- Magrane BP, Gilliland MGF, and King DE. Certification of Death by Family Physicians. American Family Physician 1997 Oct 1;56(5):1433-8. PMID 9337765
- Swain GR, Ward GK, Hartlaub PP. Death certificates: Let's get it right. American Family Physician February 15, 2005 PMID 15742904
- Online Death Indexes and Records lists some online death certificate indexes
- Where to Write for Vital Records (including Death Certificates) from the National Center for Health Statistics