Lid lifted off PA birth and death records

Until now, it was easier to get an FBI file than it was to get your grandmother's death certificate in Pennsylvania.

But thanks to a new law, which took a quarter century to enact, Pennsylvania state agencies are offering access to birth and death records from the 20th century.

The new policy, the result of legislation approved in December, makes birth certificates available after 105 years and death certificates 50 years after they are signed.

On Wednesday, births from 1906 and deaths from 1906 to 1961 will be made public. Before 1906, they’re kept by counties. The plan is to make additional years available on a rolling basis.

Researchers should know the spelling of the name, the year of the death or birth, and the county.

Before this week the only birth record you could get was your own. Death records were closed except by court order. Pennsylvania was unusual in its lock-and-key approach to records that are invaluable to genealogists, says state archivist David Haury, who added archives phones have been ringing steadily over the past two days with queries.

Historians and the state archives fought for 25 years to get a law allowing the records to be opened but other agency officials objected fearing it would lead to identity theft or, in the case of causes of death, potentially embarrass living descendants.

The Department of Health is handling phone requests. The cost for mailing a hard copy is $3. If you hoof it to the State Archives  at 350 North St. in Harrisburg single copies are free of charge. The archives is open only Wednesday through Friday. 

Hoary urges individuals to check the index posted on the Dept. of Health website before heading to Harrisburg to ensure the records are there.



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