What is a Death Certificate?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A death certificate is a legal document which lists the location, time, and manner of death for someone who has passed away. Such documents are considered vital certificates, along with birth certificates and marriage certificates, which means that they must be filed with regional keepers of such certificates, such as county clerks. In many regions of the world, death certificates are also public records, which means that anyone can obtain a copy of one by making a formal request, although concerns about identity theft have made some nations question this practice.

Without a death certificate, people cannot arrange for disposition of remains.
Without a death certificate, people cannot arrange for disposition of remains.

Typically, a death certificate is filled out by a doctor or medical examiner. When the cause of death is readily evident, sometimes police officers are also allowed to fill out a certificate of death. As a general rule, the certificate must be issued as soon as possible, and doctors may be subject to penalties for failing to complete a death certificate. If someone has been autopsied to determine the cause of death, this may be indicated on the certificate of death.

A death certificate may indicate whether or not an autopsy was performed.
A death certificate may indicate whether or not an autopsy was performed.

Death certificates are also sometimes issued without the presence of a body in certain circumstances. For example, when people are presumed to be lost at sea or in catastrophic accidents, a certificate of death will be filled out so that surviving family members can file for benefits. These documents are also issued when someone has vanished for seven years or more, as the long absence strongly suggests death.

Without a death certificate, people cannot legally remarry, arrange for disposition of remains, file for benefits, or access the financial accounts of the decedent. For this reason, family members are usually issued copies of the certificate once it has been filed so that they can take care of all of the assorted errands which accompany death, from filing taxes for the decedent to accessing death benefits provided by insurance companies.

Typically, a death certificate is issued on the same day of the death, especially in the case of people who believe that their dead must be buried before sunset for religious reasons. If there is a substantial delay before the certificate of death is issued, family members may become quite upset, because without this critical document, they cannot move on with the myriad administrative tasks involved in coping with a death.

Because death certificates are public documents, medical examiners and doctors are very careful about how they write out the manner of death. In some regions, disclosure of certain illnesses such as AIDS is viewed as a breach of confidentiality, even after death, so the certificate of an AIDS patient may read “natural” in the cause of death field. In the case of suicide, some compassionate medical examiners may choose to write “natural” or “cardiac arrest,” especially if the deceased will be denied burial in a religious cemetery on the basis of suicide.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@comparables- My Father passed recently, and I helped my mother make all of the final arrangements. I never realized what was involved in preparing a death certificate. To obtain a death certificate, there was about an hour of questions involving all aspects of his life. I understand that it is necessary to divulge this information, but it was tough. My father was a very private person, and we had to tell a stranger some of the more personal things about his life that he shared with very few people. Dealing with all of his last wishes was one of the hardest things I have had to do in my life. I definitely have a new appreciation for life after helping my mother deal with all of this.


In Arizona, getting a death certificate takes about three weeks. You also need to get an original death certificate for almost any transaction that involves transfer of money or property. In a sense, it is nice that the death certificate is delayed for a few weeks so that the family of the deceased has time to grieve. Until the death certificate comes, the only business related to the death is the funeral or cremation arrangements.

Post your comments
Forgot password?