At the top of the certificate will be written the name of the registration district and sub-district and the county or city in which the death occurred, and also the year.
This is the number (1-500) of the entry in the register. A scanned certificate will definitely have the correct number, and although it is just possible that a hand written certificate will be wrong, once you have the certificate it is of little importance - who wants to buy a duplicate certificate for family history purposes?
Column 1 - When and where died
Most deaths are registered within a few days, if certified by a doctor it should be within five days or if after a post-mortem examination within 14 days. If there has been an accident or there are suspicious circumstances and an inquest is held there could be a delay of several months. If a body is found and the exact date of death is not known it will say 'on or about...." and a best guess made according to the state of decomposition of that body.
As with birth registrations, the quarterly indexes compiled by the GRO are arranged by date of registration, not by date of death.
The place of death could be anywhere. Early certificates often only have a village name, becoming more specific by the end of the 19th century. I have an 1883 death certificate where the place of death was the workhouse bed no 67. Before about 1900 workhouses were named as such, after that the street address of the institution was given, though hospitals and infirmaries were still named.
Column 2 - Name and Surname
This will be the name by which the deceased person was known at the time of their death and not necessarily the same as on their birth certificate. People changed their names for all sorts of reasons. A married woman or widow will usually be known by her married name. Sometimes an unidentified body was found and a line will be drawn through this column. A baby who died very shortly after birth without being named will only have a surname.
Column 3 - Sex
Shown as male or female, usually correct but mistakes have been known.
Column 4 - Age
Sometimes correct but often a guesstimate. The younger the deceased the more likely the informant was to know the exact age - people usually knew how old a child was, but the elderly man next door may have been 60, or 70 or 80..... Even, when still alive, he may not have really known how old he was. In the early days of civil registration with no state retirement pension to look forward to adults just didn't need to know how old they were. Round figures are more likely to be guesses than exact ages like 72 or 47. If the informant was a neighbour or workhouse master the age is less likely to be accurate than if the informant was a close relative.
Column 5 - Occupation
This is whatever the informant told the registrar. A man of working age will have his usual occupation recorded though an elderly man might be a labourer because he was no longer able to do the skilled job he's done for many years. Someone with a pension might be shown as 'Independent means' or 'Annituant'. A single woman will probably have an occupation, though she might be 'Daughter of (father's name) a .......(his occupation). A child will also be shown as son/daughter of (father's name) a .......(his occupation), though an illegitimate child will have the mother's name and occupation A married woman or a widow will be 'the wife/widow of (husbands name) a........ (husband's occupation).
Column 6 - Cause of Death
Deaths could be:
Certified by a doctor
Certified after post-mortem examination
Certified following an inquest.
Most early deaths were uncertified, and the cause of death was given in lay terms by the informant - childbirth, stroke, heart attack, fever etc. A doctor had to be paid and many people simply could not afford to call for a doctor. In time more and more deaths were certified by a doctor and the cause of death tends to be medical jargon. However, to be qualified to sign a death certificate the doctor had to have been in attendence for the last illness and had seen the deceased within 14 days of the death or seen the body. Even today it is possible that the only doctor who has treated a patient within 14 days of the death goes away for three weeks holiday just before the death, and with no suspicious circumstances a coronor might accept an uncertified death, but that is rare now and post-mortem examinations are common.
If a death is certified after an inquest it means that there was an accident or suspicious circumstances so it is always worth trying to find contemporary newspaper reports which might have a lot more detail about the cause of death, and sometimes the original coroner's inquest paprwork can be found in the county archives.
Column 7 - Signature, description and residence of the informant.
As with birth certificates you only get an original signature, or mark, if you have a scanned certificate from a local register office. GRO registers have contemporary copies of the names as signed and typed or handwritten certificates have the names written in a modern hand.
The informant could be:
Someone present at the death - might be a close relative or just a neighbour
Someone in attendance - might be a nurse, but more likely to be a relative
The Occupier of a house or institution - often the master of a workhouse or matron of a hospital/infirmary
After 1875 the relationship to the deceased was usually given, and additionally the person who found a body, or who was causing the body to be buried could be the informant. If there has been an inquest the coroner will be the informant. The address of the informant in the early days was usually just the village name but gardually became more specific.
Column 8 - Date of registration
Usually only a few days after the death - within 5 days for uncertified or certified deaths and 14 days for a post-mortem, but no time limit on inquests, so it is possible that a death could be recorded months or even a year later.
Column 9 - Signature of registrar
Not particularly relevant to family historians unless he (sometimes she) was your ancestor. If there are two signatures in this column the death was registered more than a year after the event - so almost certainly there will have been an inquest.
Brenda's Family History§ Kent Family History