Thursday, October 19, 2023

Knowing Now What Was Needed Then


Sometimes, I wish I had thought of things sooner—like when I had first sent away for my paternal grandfather's death certificate. If I knew at that time what I know now, I could have had Aunt Rose's death record on hand to help answer the questions I'm struggling with this month.

But that was then; this is now, when I finally discovered the actual date of Rose Hassinger's death. For that detail, my thanks go to that bulldog nonprofit, Reclaim the Records, for their wrestling match with the New York State Department of Health. As they put it, "It took us seventeen months of fighting with the government just to get a list of the names of dead people."

It was that death index, recently obtained for all by Reclaim the Records, which provided me with the exact date of death of Rose Hassinger. More than that, it also identified the location of her death: "N. Hempstead"—or, more specifically, the Town of North Hempstead, where Julius Hassinger still lived at the time of the 1940 census, three years after his wife's death.

If I had known about that date of Rose's death decades ago, when I first sent for my grandfather's own death certificate, I might have actually obtained a copy of it. As it stands now, my chances of actually obtaining a copy of Rose's death record—and thus, the names of her parents if that was provided at the time of her death—are virtually nil. And there's a spiraling descent of a story to explain why my chances are so limited.

Here's my tale of woe, set to the tune of apparent legal changes in New York State. According to their website, I now can only order a copy of a death certificate if I am the spouse, parent, child, or sibling of the deceased. Problem #1: Rose Hassinger was none of these; she was my grandaunt. Worse, she had no children, and her only brother has long since died, so I have no one to ask to order the record on my behalf.

Just when my hopes were dashed by this restriction, a ray of hope appeared on the horizon: the New York State Department of Health will provide an uncertified copy of a death record, as long as the date of death was "on file" for at least fifty years. The good news is Rose's date of death in 1937 certainly qualifies me on that count. The bad news? "Processing a genealogy request may take eight (8) months or longer."

Instead, the New York State website recommendation for the impatient: submit requests to the municipal clerk where the death actually occurred. Next step: look for the county, right? Wrong. In New York, death records were generally kept by the township. In Rose's case, that would be the Town of North Hempstead.

Clicking through their menu to, first, the Town Clerk's office, then being redirected to their webpage on Vital Records—nothing is ever easy—I discovered a listing again of the same limitations provided by the state's website. In addition, the site rattled off a list of places of death, mostly hospitals, for which they would not provide death certificates. Problem #2: from that caveat, I now enter my own personal Catch 22. How am I to know where Rose might have died? Without an obituary, the only way I could know her precise location of death within the township would be to view it on her death certificate.

The faint glimmer at the end of this tunnel of genealogical doom was the township's provision of a "fee for genealogical searches." Of course, I don't need a search; thanks to Reclaim the Records, I finally have the precise date of death. Nothing on the webpage indicates that the fee would result in receiving a copy of the actual document desired. But the entry offered a phone number to call "for further information."

After all that wandering in circles, I decided to double check what I had found. I looked up the wiki for researching genealogy in Nassau County, New York, location of Rose's final home in North Hempstead. There, the section on Vital Records mentioned that records in New York, contrary to the sense I had gathered from all that reading, could actually be ordered online.

Genealogy could come with instant gratification, after all? I clicked on the link in the FamilySearch wiki article, which brought me to an order form for I hesitated. This seemed a bit too easy, after all the warnings I had consumed from the New York State website. Another clickable link in that same paragraph on the wiki offered an alternate: a New York State Records Research Guide at the website Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. There, too, the option of ordering online led to the order form.

Receiving my answer within "two to five days" seems tempting, until I realize it comes at a price—a price I would likely not have had to pay, if only I had known all those years ago to order Aunt Rose's document along with the death record for my own grandfather. Were things easier back then? Perhaps I am just conveniently forgetting.

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