What’s in a Name? The New York City Department of Health & Deceased People’s Birth Certificates

Statue of Liberty

Picture it: A ship coming into New York Harbor from Italy carrying your poor, huddled masses yearning to be free. They arrive in New York, traveling through Ellis Island before they head into New York City or to the large train station in Jersey City where a new world awaited them. Crying from joy over arriving in the country where the city streets are paved with gold, doors open and ready to welcome the new immigrants, and anything is possible! In New York you can be a new man! The ship is in the harbor, another immigrant coming up from the bottom!

Well, that’s what the myth tells us, anyway. And Hamilton.

In 1993, New Jersey took New York to court to claim ownership over Ellis Island, arguing that the island was actually in New Jersey, so technically these people arrived not in New York but in New Jersey. New York scoffed, saying that no one in these huddled masses left their hovel impoverished homelands for New Jersey. They waited a few generations then as part of another American Myth went to the suburbs of New Jersey, Connecticut, or Long Island.

The fight might have been carried out by yelling across the Hudson River because the GW bridge was closed to spite some people; the NJ Transit trains were all stuck in Penn Station because a disabled Amtrak train was blocking the tunnel; the PATH train was just, you know, delayed. NYC and NJ always bicker about stuff like this.

New Jersey was serious, though. The Supreme Court actually ruled in New Jersey’s favor in a King Solomon style decision to split the island — the decision allowed that the 3 acres that constituted the naturally occurring, original portion of Ellis Island were New York’s, but everything that had been subsequently backfilled to make the island larger and allow for more facilities to be built in the late 19th century belonged to New Jersey.

And New Jersey wasn’t going to say, “No! Don’t split the baby!” We’re a saw-that-baby-in-half-and-make-sure-I-get-all-the-intestines-I’m-entitled-to kind of state.

So your poor huddled masses really arrived in New Jersey, on a most unique piece of land: A portion of a state — a dot of land — completely surrounded by another state. It’s completely unique in the United States.

Why am I telling you about Ellis Island, though? First, Connecticut (18.6%), New Jersey (17.9%), and New York (14.4%) as of 2011 were the states with the largest percentage of the general population being Italian American. Comparatively, Texas enjoys a 1.7%. The New York metropolitan/tristate area refers to parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and is a hub for Italian Americans where we can easily find entire supermarket aisles devoted to pasta, delis that cater to our particular cured meat preferences, and Catholic churches. You don’t realize how Italian American friendly this area is until you move to Minnesota and you’re calling your mom crying for her to send you some Locatelli pecorino romano, the very specific canned tomatoes you like, and your favorite pasta shapes because this is just sad.

It also means that statistically speaking, chances are good you have someone in your family who was in New York City for a major life event.

The second reason it’s important, as relates to vital records in particular, is that (as Law & Order teaches us) jurisdiction matters. Everybody’s got their own vital records that they manage differently. Each town, municipality, state… They all manage it differently. What’s easy in one state could require a court order in another.

My family, if you were not born in Italy, you were born in New York City (either Manhattan or Brooklyn, also known as Kings County because people not from NYC often ask me “what is Kings County”). New York City is made up of 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Overseeing the birth and death records for New York City, at this time, going back to 1910 is the New York City Department of Health (NYC DOH) and before 1910 the Municipal Archives but also keep in mind, again, things change and these 5 boroughs were not always a part of New York City.

The DOH is not the reason NYC is known as a vibrant, City-that-never-sleeps place. Honestly, the DOH reinforces and reminds me that Customer Service isn’t a real thing and is an expectation that other people in other states like Wisconsin came up with. If you’re alive and want your own birth certificate, assuming your name hasn’t changed substantially it can be really easy to get your own birth certificate from the NYC DOH. Getting mine was easy.

My father ordered his and my mother hers (well, he gave me the credit card and information needed to order after I told he exactly what he needed and my mom just kept yelling “YOU KNOW THEY DON’T HAVE AIR CONDITIONING!”).

Is it the fastest turnaround? No, not really, but it shows up… eventually.

To get a dead person’s birth certificate from NYC, though, the DOH converts into one of those impossible to read captcha tests. The NYC DOH is the troll under the bridge demanding you answer some riddles to prove you have a right to see that old birth certificate.

Jurisdiction is important, too, because New York City operates differently from New York State. And New York State has different rules, than, say, Florida or California. For a birth certificate for a deceased person from New York City, I started compiling my paperwork like I was getting ready to apply for a mortgage. I gathered together:

  • My grandmother’s certified death certificate (she died outside of New York City, and they demand proof of her death).

The thing is, NYC DOH will tell you flat out that if the name on the death certificate doesn’t match the name on the index or on the birth certificate, they can deny your request. And, well, what were the odds going to be this woman had kept the same name, verbatim, her entire life?

My grandmothers are clear examples of how Italian women’s names… Not always the stalwart, steadfast, constants you might’ve hoped for. My maternal grandmother spent her entire life thinking she knew the name on her birth certificate. In her 70s, she finally wanted to get a passport to go to Italy and guess what? When she tried getting a copy of her birth certificate to get a passport, she discovered that her birth certificate name was Vincenza, a name she’d never used a day in her life.

She confronted her mother, my sainted great grandmother, a woman then in her early 90s who wasn’t sure what the big deal was; she never used her birth certificate name in the US. It wasn’t until I was a sassy teen that I started calling her Domenica and refusing her other aliases. My great aunt similarly decided to shed the name Giovanna completely upon arriving in the US from Sicily as a teen and went by Jenny the rest of her life on everything.

Growing up with a lot of first generation American kids whose parents came from China in my friend group, having Your Name Name and the Name You Use for English Speaking People to Use was, honestly, pretty normal.

Now that 9/11 was [cough] almost 20 years ago, I feel it’s important to note as an Elder Millennial: Pre 9/11 names matching were not the big deal they are now. The 6 points of ID were not always A Thing and were sold as a way to combat terrorism (and nowadays identity theft, as well).

For people with documented lives who had to make the adjustment to the post 9/11 world, it was a bumpy process. My parents had used confirmation names as middle names, a not uncommon practice among baby boomer Italian Catholics and older. But alas, the US government doesn’t really recognize this as a name change. My mom not only used a confirmation name as a middle name, she had her maiden name on some things, married on others, full first name in some places, different first name that she gave herself in others. She was hysterical because the DMV wouldn’t issue her a new license since none of the names matched.

So when the time came to find my paternal grandmother’s birth certificate, I was slightly nervous about whether or not the NYC DOH would even give it to me and what her actual name was. New York City does have certain indices published online, available through sites like Ancestry and Family Search. Birth certificate indices will provide the person’s name, date of birth, and certificate number for example. Before PDFs and ctrl F, there were indices to find things in large books and if you’re having trouble locating someone it’s time to start metaphorically flipping through pages.

NYC DOH might have transcribed it wrong into the index.

You might have the wrong name.

The wrong name might’ve been written on the birth certificate.

Either way NYC DOH looks at that and says “that’s a you problem, not a me problem.”

I was overjoyed to find my grandmother’s birth certificate listed after browsing because I couldn’t find her. Huh. Teresina. She was born Teresina. A huge, significant name change? No, not really. In fact, it was a “little” name change. Literally. Teresina, like little, sweet, cute, tiny Teresa. Her mother went, alternately, by “Rosa” and “Rosina.” I knew it wasn’t a big deal. You can see it’s not a big deal. Teresa. Teresina. So close, it’s exactly the same. Basically.

But would the NYC DOH think it wasn’t a big deal?

Because the other issue was that I didn’t know how my great grandparents’ names appeared on the certificate, either. My grandmother had written her parents’ names one way, my aunt had written them differently on her death certificate. Frank and Francesco — I mean, I know they’re the same man but would NYC DOH? (Coincidentally, there was another man with that exact name who lived near them, his family had all the same names, the only way to tell them apart was their age.)

I made a table with the possible spellings and wrote “anglicization” next to them to go with my application.

It helped that she was the only person with that last name born on that day in New York City.

NYC DOH took about 7 months to send along the birth certificate. First, they returned her death certificate with a slip of paper saying they’d prefer to not use my self addressed, stamped envelope and instead one of their own envelopes. It took this long because it was, “in the book.” NYC didn’t digitize all of their records, birth certificates issued between 1910 and 1920 are still in a book, in a vault, that has to be searched manually by a human who goes in a room and looks for it. They’re written out in beautiful penmanship in the original that’s reproduced on the copy you get. So, once again, knowing where and how your records fall can help you set expectations for how long it will take.

Whether or not I needed the diagram explaining the name, I have no idea. They ended up giving me the maximum 3 copies without issue or question. A big gray “DECEASED” was stamped across the page.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the prospect of the NYC DOH refusing to issue me the certificate because I had asked for someone born in May and this clearly said “Maggio” on the certificate. “Sorry, this person was born in Mah-gee-o, you asked for someone born in May, so.”

And after all this — what’s in a name, anyway? Something your parents picked without your consent or input, why should I be bound by that? It’s antithetical to the American Myth that you can make yourself whatever you want.

As a queer person, too, I have a lot of practice with people telling me who they are, what they want to be called, and respecting that decision. But then I also know people changed their names to make life easier for people who only spoke English and weren’t familiar with their names. To avoid the irritation of role call in class and that moment when the teacher got to theirs and just looked and sounded annoyed. In Minnesota, I used to sit with other teaching assistants and go over the Chinese students’ names and how to pronounce them.

So I am committed to using the name that a person gives me. The one they want to be called, not the one that is forced on them from someone else in an effort to fit into a box that wasn’t built for them. Whatever name you want, you give me and I use it.

As Fran Fine once joked on The Nanny, “We got to Ellis Island, they changed our names, now we don’t know who the hell we were! Ah HA!”

An Italian American, raised in New Jersey by parents from Brooklyn, I recently completed the Jure Sanguinis process. I eat antipasta twice because it’s so nice.