Causes of Death—Medical History Map

“Struck by lightning.” “Struck head on stove.” These are accidental causes of death listed on death certificates for one of my maternal great-grandmothers and for one of my paternal 2X-great-grandmothers, respectively. All other causes of death I’ve found for my direct line and for 1st degree to 3rd degree relatives have been from various diseases, with heart disease, cancer and dementia showing up too regularly. Here are are two sections of the charts I put together, for a new way to see it all in one place. The clipped section above starts with me, then my mom and most of her paternal side. The second clipped section starts with my dad and shows his paternal side.

I’m at the age where I have to go to medical specialists and fill out endless forms with family medical history. Usually they ask for the medical history of my parents, grandparents and siblings. Sometimes they ask about the medical history of my uncles, aunts and cousins. I know much of it off the top of my head, but I realized I needed more details. So I’ve been deep-diving into my collection of death certificates of family members, and trying to list all their various ailments in one place to get a better overview of the prevailing diseases on various lines. I’ve sent away for death certificates I did not have for certain family members.

I went as far as to make a “Cause of Death Medical History Map” to visually see the cause of death for five generations on one page—just a different way to view it. Click here for my free template if you want to make your own. Just click the blue “Use Template” button on it to get started.

Many thanks to fellow genealogist J. Paul Hawthorne for giving me the idea for this visual because of his colorful birth state pedigree chart that he shared with us a few years back!

Here’s what I’ve learned so far (or had brought to remembrance):

  1. It is so important to ask for the death certificates of your first degree to third degree relatives! If your parents, grandparents and any siblings are not alive, don’t hesitate to get a copy of each death certificate and also write down their known diseases and ailments on one sheet for reference. It can really help doctors determine the best age for you to start screenings for prevalent or rare diseases that run in your family.
  2. It’s okay to ask your cousins, aunts and uncles for their medical history and ask your cousins to share their deceased siblings’ medical history and their deceased parents’ medical history. Share yours back so everyone has a more complete picture.
  3. The cause of death listed for long-ago deaths is often not current medical terminology, and sometimes the doctor’s best guess.
  4. Very few people had autopsies.
  5. There are too many people in my family who have had “senility” and “dementia.”
  6. There are so many with heart problems, the leading cause of death. I am curious, is cardiovascular disease the number one cause of death in your family? If not, what is?
  7. Death certificates for six of my eight maternal 2X great-grandparents in the late 1800s and early 1900s in rural Missouri do not exist, not even after death certificates were “required.” The Missouri State Archives sent me a message saying that “reporting of deaths did not reach over 90% until the late 1930s. Particularly if an individual died at home (hence no doctor to report the death) or in a rural area, deaths continued to go unrecorded.”
  8. I am waiting anxiously for a death certificate from Colorado for a paternal 2X great-grandmother who died in 1909. I hope they can find it! This record is not online. I had to pay to order it, and prove my relationship by sending photos of birth certificates.
  9. I am also waiting for a death certificate for a paternal great-grandfather who died in California in 1917. We know less about this line than any other line. This record is not online. I think my grandma didn’t order it because she had an incorrect date of death on her pedigree chart for a long time (July 1918 instead of December 1917).
  10. We do not know for sure the dates of death for two of my 2X great-grandfather’s, despite a pretty solid paper trail for each of their lines going back to Colonial America and then to England. Just a few generations away from me, their death years are murky and possibly lost to time.
  11. For relatives who don’t have death certificates and/or obituaries that list the cause of death, I was able to find some of their ailments and causes of death from mini-sketches written by family members and in old letters.

It’s a fascinating exercise for me, and one I’m still working on. Along the way, I’ve been able to fill in some blanks by finding news articles and additional documentation. As for DNA, I have DNA cousin matches from many different lines who tie in to all these lines. One of the things on my to-do list is to send some of them brief messages asking if they will share some of the causes of death and diseases in their family.

How will you use the information from a chart like this to take charge of your own health journey? I have caught up on almost all my essential health screenings, and others are scheduled to take place soon. Please let me know if you use the template, and if you gain insights from finding out more about your family medical history.

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