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Data Protection in the Deceased Online Database

Data protection is an important aspect of family history research, and use of documents and data. While genealogists like to explore as many records as possible of their deceased ancestors, records offices and websites need to balance this against legal requirements to protect the privacy of the living. In this post, I look at Deceased Online's approach to this subject and explain why some of the records in the database have been redacted.

Where burial or cremation registers contain information about possibly living people, Deceased Online, like other data providers, is obliged to mask (or redact) the personal details in the register scans. The legal requirements are set forth in the UK's Data Protection Act. Further privacy measures are taken as a result of the individual preferences of the participating cemeteries and crematoria whose records have been published by Deceased Online.

At first glance, it may appear that Deceased Online's database holds information only on those who are, in fact, deceased. However, burial/cremation records and other records held by local authorities and private cemeteries/crematoria also include details of burial rights. In these sections there may be references to living people. Information about living people can be published if it is very unlikely that so doing would compromise them in any way. However, there are statutory provisions for anyone affected about information to request to have the information redacted. Also. records are also held back in entries where full access may be inappropriate, such as of recent victims of homicide.

Examples of records where details have been redacted include:
  • in details of burial rights, where details are given of the individuals who hold those rights;
  • burial register entries which include details of the individual who applied for the funeral, who may still be alive, although this is rare;
  • cremation register entries that include details of the individual who applied for the cremation, who may still be alive;
  • gravestone images and searchable inscription transcripts that contain the names of living persons;
  • information about living individuals that may be inferred from information about deceased individuals. For example, the fact that a deceased individual lived at a given address and was married may amount to information about his or her surviving spouse.
Although this information is already publicly available at cemetery and crematorium offices, to ensure that any risks to individual privacy are kept to a minimum, with the exception of gravestone images and inscriptions, Deceased Online does not make any such information available until it is at least fifteen years old.
Example of a redacted register on the Deceased Online database
The above example is taken from a 2003 cremation register for Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh. Here you can see the blank spaces where certain information has been masked (or redacted). When viewing records for this crematorium on the Deceased Online website, you can see a number of details of the deceased, including date of cremation, name, age, sex, marital status, date of death, the district where death was registered, and how the ashes were disposed of.

However, the person's residence and occupation are redacted, as are the names and addresses of those who applied for the cremation and those who signed the certificate. The reasons for this are that details of the deceased can be revealed but not those of anyone with whom they shared a residence. It is possible that others at the residence are still alive and their privacy must be protected. Those who applied for the cremation or signed the certificate may also still be alive and are similarly protected.

Despite the redaction, these records remain useful for family historians. The name, age and marital status of those cremated can be used to confirm identity. And the details of the district where death has been registered should direct researchers to a death certificate and/or probate document. While the burial or cremation register may not help family historians find living relatives, the death certificate and probate records possibly could.

If you have any questions about redaction and data protection, do get in touch with us via our Facebook and Twitter pages, or leave a comment in the box below.

P. S. Looking for ancestors in Dorset? We've just added all records, dating back to 1861, for Gillingham Town Council in the north of the county, see sample register scan. We now have several sites in Dorset including Blandford Forum and 3 sites in Weymouth and Poole with memorial inscriptions, dating back to 1776, from The National Archives. Just across the border, there are records for 7 sites managed by Wiltshire County Council as well as 3 more sites from The National Archives dating from 1745.


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