How can I find info on someone who's passed away?
May 3, 2007 3:42 AM   Subscribe

I know someone's date of birth, date of death, the U.S. state they died in (Washington) -- but not the county -- and their SSN. How do I find out what happened to them?

I was Googling people that I went to college with and found out that one of them had passed away.

I'm not 100% sure it's the same person -- the birthdate seems about right. The name is not common but not unheard of. And Washington state is where we went to college.

The information comes from this genealogy site. There was an offer to pay for more information, but a) I'm not sure what information it would give, and b) I was thinking it's one of those "pay us money for stuff you can get from the government for free."

I guess I'm looking for two things:

1. An obituary-type thing that would say where they went to college, so that I'd know whether or not it's the person I think it is. (I already looked through several weeks of The Seattle Times' obituary section to no avail.)

2. Why they died, for which an obit might suffice, or a death certificate.

Any ideas?
posted by Karlos the Jackal to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Among genealogists, it's standard to cite locations down to the county level at least; and I know (which owns RootsWeb) pays a lot of attention to data entry. I suspect they do know the county and are holding out on you.

The bad news is that Washington's famous historical mistrust of centralization means that there is no statewide agency to contact. For the east-side counties, that's the elected coroner's office; west-side counties tend to have home-rule charters, and they may have put the certifying of deaths in one or another department that other counties might not even have. Here's a list of Washington counties, in case you want to go through them one by one. (Beginning to see why RootsWeb has a fair reason to hold out on you?)

Now, of course, having raised the east-side/west-side issue, I might as well ask: Which side of the state? Which college? I'm guessing west side, since you searched the Seattle Times. (Did you try the Post-Intelligencer?) If you went to WSU, you're looking in the wrong place; I don't know what the major papers are over there, but I don't consider an easterner any more likely to move to the west side (or vice versa) than a Boise boy is to move to Boston (or, mutatis mutandis, a Bostoner to Boise).

Alas, looking through newspapers is going to involve about as much grind as writing to county offices; I grew up not an hour's drive from Seattle, but if I kicked off suddenly I know which paper my obit would run in, and 'Seattle' is not in its name. The name of the county seat, however, is.

One last thing: What did your friend study? What were his/her career interests? I can tell you which counties I'd check first if they were in aerospace, and some other ones I'd get to sooner if they were in recreation management, and yet others for agriculture.

Good luck finding your friend.
posted by eritain at 5:11 AM on May 3, 2007

I bet your university has an active alumni office, and either a website or phone call could give latest known address (there's your county) or, if your friend is dead, the university might already know it. (They may have continued to ask your friend for donations anyway.)
posted by whatzit at 6:03 AM on May 3, 2007

I suspect they do know the county and are holding out on you.

I just tried searching on RootsWeb for a bunch of my family members who've passed away, and, only by entering their names, was given all the information, including the county name, about them. So, my guess is that RootsWeb, for whatever reason, actually doesn't have the county information for your friend.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:05 AM on May 3, 2007

If I might make a suggestion: You've got the HiveMindTM helping you out here. If you can tell us the information you know about your friend, we might be able to help you dig up the information you're looking for. It would still be the same question you already asked, so you wouldn't be breaking the guidelines.
posted by cerebus19 at 6:09 AM on May 3, 2007

Boy, eritain's answer is helpful.

I'm curious about why you have the SSN, but query whether you should remain careful with that, for fear of opening up cans of worms for the heirs.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 6:30 AM on May 3, 2007

I'm surprised that the Social Security Death Index didn't give you the county. The "Last Residence" field usually gives the zip code that the person was living in when they died, along with the city, county, and state.

I agree with whatzit, contact your university. My university has a ceremony every year to remember alumni that have passed. They might not be able to release details to you, but they might be able to confirm that it is actually your friend who died.
posted by donajo at 6:35 AM on May 3, 2007

It appears that the Washington state agency that would have the death certificate is the Center for Health Statistics, if it has been at least three months since the date of death.

Clyde Mnestra, SSNs for dead people are easily available online (see the link in the question). Once you're dead, your ssn is no longer a secret.
posted by donajo at 6:55 AM on May 3, 2007

The Washington Center for Health Statistics can provide you with the death certificate of anyone who died more than 3 months ago -- looks like it'll cost $17. You can do it by mail, but if you know anyone in the area who'll help you out, you can have them get it via walk-in same day service and mail it to you, rather than waiting the 6 weeks for the mail service.
posted by katemonster at 7:01 AM on May 3, 2007

Damn -- donajo beat me to the punch.
posted by katemonster at 7:01 AM on May 3, 2007

Donajo, you ably answer my query, and I should have figured that out. Presumably credit card companies, etc., run checks before authorizing new cards. What's peculiar is that for some time after death, SSNs serve as the same kind of key for unlocking the use of assets as they do during life, so I'm struck that they would be so publicly accessible.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:43 AM on May 3, 2007

Best answer: I am a genealogist with membership to many paid online databases, and I'm happy to help you, at no cost, if you'd like to email me the information. You don't need to share the SS# if you'd rather not. I can also do newspaper research and possibly find the actual obituary (which do not always mention cause of death or college, but might).

Rootsweb does not charge anyone for SSDI information - including what county the person died in (SSDI is free and online at many sites). Most likely the county was not provided by the person submitting the death to SS (this is done by a relative usually - and not everyone who dies is reported to SS) -and that's why you don't find the county listed on Rootsweb. If you were to click on "Order Record" you'd be ordering a copy of the death certificate from VitalCheck, a reliable company I've dealt with many times.

Is the city listed?

You can also do a free obituary search at Obituary Daily Times It will list the newspaper name and date of obit. If you can't find it there, I have other resources to check.
posted by LadyBonita at 10:50 AM on May 3, 2007, free search that can turn up cemetery info about dead folks.
posted by tdischino at 11:55 AM on May 3, 2007

Response by poster: OP here.

Best link turned out to be the Obituary Family Times, as suggested by LadyBonita.

Searching for the person's name gave me the city and the name of the newspaper that the obituary ran in (it was The Olympian, from Olympia. Seattle was just a shot in the dark).

From there, I went to The Olympian's website and searched their obituaries. It gave me a full obituary (which confirmed that she went to college in Bellingham), including a photo, and said that she died in a fire last year.

Thanks to everyone for helping out.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 7:13 PM on May 3, 2007

Can you order death certificates if you're not a relative?

I have an ex girlfriend that died in Kennewick, WA in 2000. (that explains why she stopped returning my phone calls!) but since I don't know any of her family, I dunno what happened. I can't find the obit online anymore, either.
posted by drstein at 10:17 AM on May 4, 2007

DrStein, yes usually a non-relative can order a death certificate. Depends on the state. VitalCheck will let you know the state rules - though you don't have to order through them in most cases.
posted by LadyBonita at 3:41 PM on May 4, 2007

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