I was missing the death record of just one of my American great-great-grandparents (Brazil being a nut I have yet to crack). Mary King O'Hara died in Brooklyn in 1949, which meant I had to order her death certificate from the New York City Department of Health (DOH). She survived the latest of my 2x great-grandparents, and so was the only one whose death record was not held by the NYC Municipal Archives. In New York City, the Archives holds death records until 1948, and the DOH holds death records from 1949 to the present.
Being more than 50 years old, a death record from 1949 should be considered a public record, available to anyone. My understanding, however, is that the DOH has simply stopped retiring vital records to the Archives, and treats all the vital records that they hold, of whatever age, as equally confidential. So these records can be challenging to access. They can be ordered online, but only by certain family members, and in this case, I didn't qualify.
If you cannot order your record online, you can go in person to 125 Worth St. in Manhattan, or you can order through the mail. I chose the latter, which means filling out an application, having it notarized, and mailing it along with the $15 fee, a self-addressed stamped envelope, and a copy of your photo ID. (It was the notarizing that had held me back all these years. It seemed like such a hassle!) Then, you wait - the DOH helpfully provides regularly updated information on processing times.
I got my SASE back on my birthday, and was super excited to receive an awesome birthday present. I was disappointed.
My application was rejected because I hadn't provided the parents' names or the decedent's social security number, and because my ID was not expired but soon to expire. I know that this is the case because my drivers license, like most, is valid through my birthday, so it was still valid on the day the rejection arrived. If they'd just filled my order instead of filling out a form to reject my application, I could have had the certificate before my ID expired!
I couldn't fill in the parents' names because I didn't know them. In fact, finding those pieces of information was my primary motivation behind ordering this record. I hadn't even bothered to see if I could find a Social Security Number because the form actually said "Social Security Number (if available)." And yet leaving that field blank was indicated as being one of the reasons my application was rejected.
Not knowing the parents' names, and not even knowing if a 1940s housewife would have had a SSN, I was afraid that this certificate would remain unavailable to me. I decided to take a chance. First, I had to wait for my renewed license to arrive, and then I filled out the application again. For each field where I didn't have the answer, instead of leaving it blank, I wrote "unknown."
A month later, I received Mary King O'Hara's death certificate.
It feels a bit like they were just looking for reasons to turn me down.
Learn from my experience: Don't try to order records if your photo ID is expiring in the next 60 days. And write whatever you need to to avoid leaving any blank fields, even when the form explicitly states that the information is not required. Don't give the Department of Health any excuse to deny your application!