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A Public Death: Get to Know the People in Vital Records

A Public Death: Get to Know the People in Vital Records

Picture of William Heisel

It’s a sign of what a strange space I occupy in the world of health journalism that one of the most common questions I am asked is: “How do you get access to people’s death records?”

Here’s one way. Get to know the people in the vital records offices. This would have been part of the regular course of reporting in years past. Reporters went to government offices of all sorts, attended board and committee meetings and had a lot of face-to-face time with the people who control public documents.

But the near-total reliance on online communication and news gathering these days means that many of us never leave our desks when reporting a story. We might not even leave our homes.

That’s why I was stunned – in a good way – to see the Chillicothe Gazette publish this story: Donna Atchison passes 12,775 days as health district worker. The small paper south of Columbus, Ohio, wrote recently:

The way she figures it, during the past 35 years, Donna Atchison has signed her name nearly 40,000 times. She says she's got plenty more ink left in her pen.

From 1979 until 2005, Atchison served as registrar at the Ross County Health District, certifying and signing every birth and death certificate filed during those 26 years. Now, Atchison is personnel officer for the Health District. This past week, she celebrated her 12,775th day as an employee of the agency.

"People ask me why I've stayed so long," Atchison said. "I guess they think I'm crazy, but I come back with the fact that I really like my job."

I may be wrong. Perhaps Atchison has been the subject of numerous media profiles, but my guess is that this is the first time a reporter has asked her what she does and why she does it. In doing so, the paper has all but guaranteed that her office will be more cooperative in the future.

If any of you have had the pleasure of hearing legendary investigative journalist Eric Nalder give a talk, he often suggests getting people to tell their life story. People like to talk about themselves, and public employees, especially, are rarely asked about their work lives because we all tend to take their work for granted.

It’s no different than being at a party and finding yourself next to someone you’ve never met. Asking those two questions – what do you do and why – can start a conversation that lasts through several trips to the bar.

“Ah, but there’s a flaw in your plan,” you say. “I don’t think I’ll ever be at a party with the county health district registrar.”

That’s why you have to get up out of your home office. Shower. Put on your least offensive pair of shoes and head over to the Vital Statistics agency, the Registrar-Record office, the Hall of Records or whatever they call the place that keeps people’s death certificates in your area.

Find out who the gatekeeper is. If she’s as nice as Atchison appears to be, you should have no trouble striking up a conversation. If she’s not, you may have to pay more than one visit.

Do you have your own ideas for how to obtain death records? Leave a comment below. Send me a note at Or find me on Twitter @wheisel.

 Related Posts:

A Public Death: State Laws Hiding Death Certificates Can Hurt the Living

Serious Complications: Should Andy Rooney's Cause of Death Be Kept Secret?

A Public Death: Health Writers Can Show Value Of Open Access to Death Certificates

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