Codes on Death Certificates

What Do the Codes on Death Certificates Mean?

In November 4, 2017

Knowing and researching where we came from, who our ancestors are, and the history behind our family trees can lead to some amazing discoveries. Some people simply enjoy chasing family history and vital records as a hobby while others read through thousands of vital records professionally. With information gathered from birth, marriage, divorce and death records, industry professionals and family historians are often able to piece together a person or family’s history. Along the way, they might find answers to everything from family history questions to health concerns. Sometimes these vital records from our history can be very difficult to decipher. Knowing how to interpret vital records is key to getting all the answers, especially when dealing with challenges such as illegible handwriting, incomplete data or even partially damaged paperwork. A common question that may arise as you look through vital records concerns the codes that appear on death certificates. What do they mean? In some instances, illegible handwriting on a death certificate may lead to an inability to read the cause of death for an individual. In these instances, the researcher should look for a number code or ICD code.

Codes on Death Certificates

The older the vital record, the more difficult it may be to read. Whether it’s due to handwriting, damage or being incomplete, codes on death certificates can bring much needed answers to researchers.

What do the Codes on Death Certificates Mean?

These numerical or numerical/alphabetical codes on death records typically appear near the cause of death line. Sometimes overlooked, these codes refer to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) database currently maintained by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In the event that a researcher is unable to determine the cause of death on a death certificate for any reason, they can check for a number or number/letter code that refers to a database of defined causes of death. For example, a code of “I46.9” on a death certificate that indicates that individual died from cardiac arrest . This method of classification was developed in the late 1800s by a Frenchman by the name of Jacques Bertillon. It later became known as the International List of Causes of Death. This method of coding was not brought to the U.S. until 1898, but was used in countless other countries worldwide up to that point. If the deceased individual passed after this point in time, it is likely their death certificate will contain an ICD code. Codes on death certificates are more prevalent on death records pertaining to individuals who died later than 1900.

What Does it Mean if a Death Record Doesn’t Have an ICD Code?

When navigating through hundreds of vital records on the hunt to fill in the branches on your family tree, you may come across documents and certificates that are not official or were not government issued. Sometimes these records were simply collected from other sources. Records from churches, military offices or even compiled indexes may be the only documentation available in your search. In these instances, ICD references will probably not be found. In order to determine the cause of death and any contributing illnesses or other factors, you’ll need to have access to the official death record or death certificate. When looking for vital records for your genealogy project, you can gain access to thousands of official historical vital documents through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). If it’s a loved one or family member’s death certificate you need, VitalChek can assist you with getting an official copy for legal or genealogical purposes.


What is an ICD code

After the late 1800’s, ICD codes were used on official death records to help classify cause of death.

Genealogy research can be enlightening and fun, but it can also provide important answer to questions you may be have regarding your history or health. Whether you’re putting together your family tree just for fun, or you have a more serious motivation, we’ve got some great info to get you started!


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