How do I find my dead father?
May 23, 2010 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find out information about my dead father?

So! I never my biological father, and he died some time ago (about ten years). The only information that I have on him is his legal name, his religious name, the state he was from, and the state he died in, as well as the cause of death. In other words, just the bare minimum. I've gone looking on census websites and obituary compilers, but haven't found anything close - most of the ages are off by a good twenty years.

Does anyone have any other suggestions for finding a lost father? I'm too broke to hire a private investigator, and I'm a little reticent to try to track down my biological father's partner, although I will try that if I can't find much more info.

I wasn't adopted, by the way, and he showed interest in contacting me before he died, if that makes a difference in the ethicality of this question. It'd be really nice to find a photo of him, at the very least, since none exist that I know of right now. The other problem is that his last name is fairly uncommon, but it might be a bad spelling of his real name. Also, birth certificate is no good, since my father is listed as unknown.

I know AskMeFi isn't a people-finder (despite recent awesome riveting events), I guess I'm looking to see if anyone has any other suggestions for finding someone using the internet. The most recent questions on missing persons seemed to be from a couple of years ago.
posted by ajarbaday to Human Relations (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Social Security Death Index might give you the city in which he died; from there you could look in the local paper for obituaries, check phone books and city directories for addresses, etc.
posted by enn at 2:57 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: I've tried that site, but I don't find a listing that would match. If he's not on there, does that mean that my details are wrong?
posted by ajarbaday at 3:13 PM on May 23, 2010

I've researched some relatives using the following methods:
--get their death certificate from the county they died in (good details about last residence, etc)
--get their birth certificate if possible (lists parents and location of birth so gives you a place to start looking)
--find their obituary (usually lists relatives and other good details such as hobbys, work, etc)
--if you have an address for them, you can ask neighbors for info,
--check the local newspaper for stories that may have included them
--find out if they belonged to any community groups/churches/etc if you know what city to search in
--do you know of any of his relatives (could give you info or leads to people who knew him)
--find a baptism certificate
--if you know what industry he worked in, you may be able to track him down that way (especially if he has an unusual name)
--look at to see if he is listed (the payee may give you some details as to where he last lived)
posted by MsKim at 3:39 PM on May 23, 2010

Do you have a subscription to or know someone who has? They don't just have births, deaths and marriages - there are newspaper archives, passenger lists, etc, and some of them are quite recent. I was able to find my parents' names on passenger lists entering the UK, and I've also found some newpaper articles from the 1970s which were of relevance to my family. I think you can do a free trial.

Another source is - it's a pay site but again I think they offer a free trial. They are a newspaper archive site and you might find (for example) an obituary.
posted by andraste at 3:44 PM on May 23, 2010

I've tried that site, but I don't find a listing that would match. If he's not on there, does that mean that my details are wrong?

Not necessarily; I tried searches on the SS Death Index using the precise details of a couple of deceased relatives (US citizens with DOD's ranging from 27 to 5 years ago) and none of them returned listings.
posted by jamaro at 3:56 PM on May 23, 2010

It would be helpful if you could tell us the state he died and his approximate date of birth. The availability of records varies greatly from state to state and over the course of time.
posted by donajo at 3:56 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: I'm going to try the trial subscriptions to ancestry and highbeam.

My father died in California - his family was from Arizona. Also his approximate date of birth was 1950's - 1960's and he died sometime around '94 - 98.
posted by ajarbaday at 3:59 PM on May 23, 2010

You can get free access to at many libraries. I recommend this as one of the big perks of library access.

If you can't find your dad in the social security death master index, I suspect you have the wrong name or other search details.

You don't say how old your dad was, but it's possible he would show up on the 1920 or 1930 US census. Both of which are now public (the raw census data showing names, street addresses, and answers).

I would also try a Google News archive search on his name and the word 'obituary.' If you get a hit here, you will have lots of information to help you.

If you do eventually get a match on the social security list, you may then have enough information to request his military service records, which will give place and occupation info along with vital statistics.

But if possible, you should contact living relatives who might be able to fill in some details for you. This will make your search much simpler.

Good luck!
posted by zippy at 4:04 PM on May 23, 2010

You might want to pursue this directly with the Social Security Administration through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

You probably won't find any census records, as those are sealed by law for 72 years. If your father was alive during the 1930 census it's possible you could locate his family, though. The Census also handles FOIA requests.

Beyond that, the best place to start any genealogy site is arguably Cyndi's List. But you would need some of the above info to get started. MeFi's rinkjustice also has a nice starting point, Genealogy Jam.
posted by dhartung at 4:05 PM on May 23, 2010 put in his name and take it from there.
posted by anniecat at 4:21 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: A quick search using and also turn up little. Definitely could be an incorrect spelling of his name - I'll keep trying different combinations of search terms.

I do have one other detail, but I'm not sure if it's too personal - I know that his brother was killed by a serial killer while hitchhiking someplace in the 60s/70s. Are there any websites that would have a comprehensive victims list of some kind? His last name + hitchhiker murder get very few results (as do creative variations on spelling of last name).
posted by ajarbaday at 4:30 PM on May 23, 2010

I know that his brother was killed by a serial killer while hitchhiking someplace in the 60s/70s.

Almost certainly, there's news coverage of this event along with details of the brother's life (he is survived by his parents, Joe and Jane Smith, and his brother, ...). So use the Google News archive search to find this.

From there, you might also find an obituary for the brother.
posted by zippy at 4:51 PM on May 23, 2010

I sent you a MeFi mail.
posted by zvs at 5:25 PM on May 23, 2010

Since you say he had a religious name, I think you mean he was Jewish and associated with people in a religious context enough that this was significant. It's quite likely that he was buried in a Jewish cemetery, and might have been a member of a synagogue or temple. If you're not comfortable with giving the details publicly, you could MeMail me and I'll see what I can find out.

In the mean time, try these sites:

Find a Grave

JewishGen Online World Burial Registry
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:40 PM on May 23, 2010

Are there any websites that would have a comprehensive victims list of some kind? His last name + hitchhiker murder get very few results (as do creative variations on spelling of last name).

Possibly one of the Freeway Killers? The Wikipedia entries (and linked Crime Library articles) give the names of many known victims.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:16 PM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: Joe in Australia: thanks for the links, but my father was actually a member of the Hare Krishnas.

Still looking, but no leads thus far. Is there a reason why some people wouldn't have normal listings for their name?
posted by ajarbaday at 8:31 PM on May 23, 2010

In any research situation, standard wisdom says to start from the event closest in time. You know that your father died in California possibly between 1994 - 1998. There will be a death certificate, which can unlock many puzzle pieces (and may bring you more frustrating questions!). Try searching for your father's name in a free version of the California Death Records Index that ends in 2007. If you find him, follow the instructions here to obtain a copy of his death certificate. If you don't find him, it may mean he died in 2008 and again, follow the instructions from the State to have them search a range of years for a record of his death. There are minimal fees involved for this service. Also be sure to add a note on the form any other chosen or inherited names (such as the religious name you have).

If no record is found of his death under the names you have, it may also mean you must examine the information you have so far, and verify it. It never hurts to recheck sources of information for accuracy. Sometimes a fresh view gives you new insight.

Good luck on your research!
posted by kuppajava at 9:14 PM on May 23, 2010

(Definitely try the CA Death Records Index linked by kuppajava. It lists the relatives I mentioned were missing in the SSDI.)
posted by jamaro at 11:47 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Re: the serial killer - post your request on the earlier-linked Find A Grave forums. It took a few months but someone there was able to find some similar information for me. She said she had access to some kind of system like Highbeam but for libraries and news orgs.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:44 AM on May 24, 2010

nthing the california death records index (which is searchable through i have access to a lot of databases -- memail me the details if you'd like me to give it a quick try.

also, if he was very religious, i wonder if the hare krishas wouldn't have some information about him?

and if you know that he did have a living partner it seems like that would be the bonanza of information, photos, etc. though i understand your reticence. good luck!
posted by hungrytiger at 2:41 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to add the thought that the SSDI isn't necessarily an accurate or thorough database. SSDI records are generated on certain conditions ... that first of all, they had a Social Security number and used it**, and secondly, if, at the time of the person's death, Social Security was notified of that death (I can't say definitively, but I don't think Social Security is automatically notified when a death certificate is filed.

(**hypothetically, if a person was 'hiding' or otherwise dropped out of conventional living (e.g. didn't have paid employment), they likely didn't use their SSN and perhaps at the time of their death, the survivors or authorities didn't know the number, and it would never had been added to the SSDI.)

This is why finding a death certificate is a good first goal. They are a legal requirement in every part of the US. The only rare occasions there would not be a death certificate would be if the person vanished or was missing at the time of their death.

I know others have already suggested you MeMail them details to help search, and you would be welcome to contact me as well, I would be happy to do some digging on your behalf!
posted by kuppajava at 9:16 AM on May 24, 2010

Response by poster: Update!

After a lot of Google News Archives searches, I finally found my father's obituary in the Arizona Daily Star - it was about three dollars to get the listing, and it has a list of relatives that I think could lead me to contact with his family through the Arizona phone book. I'm excited about that, but nervous to talk to them - we'll see how it goes once I get the courage to call them up.

I am once again totally impressed by the ability of this community - I really don't think I would have kept looking otherwise - it's a pretty big internet to search out there. There were a lot of really good resources and suggestions in this thread, and I probably will still make good use of some of them.

Even with detailed family information and an exact spelling of his full name, I haven't yet found a death certificate listing for him. It seems like, as kuppajava suggested, that he probably fell off of the traditional radar and didn't use his SS# very often.

This meant a lot to me, and I'm really glad to have at least his obituary (I know it's him because, oddly enough, I'm listed as his daughter, even though I hadn't seen him since I was 2).

People like y'all are just wonderful.
posted by ajarbaday at 3:10 PM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here is the link to Arizona's Office of Vital Records if his death took place in Arizona rather than California.

So wonderful to hear you found his obituary, and how lovely you were mentioned in it. It's stories like this that illustrate how rewarding historical and family research can be!
posted by kuppajava at 9:39 AM on May 25, 2010

For others following this thread, and perhaps about to embark on your own research, this is a helpful place to start searching for death records in the US: Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records as compiled by genealogist Joe Beine. Each state page has a link, near the bottom, for the official state agency that regulates vital records.
posted by kuppajava at 9:52 AM on May 25, 2010

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