Once you have interviewed the oldest living relatives in your family to find out more about your ancestor and gathered the records you have on hand such as obituaries, you will need to identify which historical documents exist which were generated during your ancestor's lifetime.
Birth, marriage, and death records are the first resources to try to locate. It is important to know when these records began to be kept in the area where your ancestor was born, married, and died.
The death is usually the most recent event in the life of an ancestor. Start researching the most recent events and step backwards in time. Once you can identify an actual or approximate death date and where your ancestor might have died, refer to this vital records chart to be sure the event you are trying to document would have occurred during the same time records for the event was being keep: Vital Records Chart at Family Tree Magazine.
My great grandfather (left), George Anderson Tucker, lived in Buffalo, Union, South Carolina. According to oral history, his family lived there when he died. I did have a death date (1932) provided to me by his daughter, Catherine. I knew he was alive when my grandmother, Otis, eloped (1927). Death records began to be kept in South Carolina in 1915, so I knew there was a strong possibility that I should find one. I searched to no avail for a death certificate in Union County. I decided to check Richland County for the record since his daughter lived there and it was highly likely he would have gone to Columbia seeking medical treatment.
I was successful in locating the death certificate. George died in Columbia. The address listed is the home of his daughter, my grandmother, Otis. Her husband, Emory Wallace Vance, was the informant. The names of his parents and the funeral home is also given. This is a good illustration of how much information a death certificate can provide if the informant knew enough about the individual. This death certificate is a treasure; it includes the names of five of my direct line ancestors.
Many death records are being made available online. The FamilySearch beta program, Record Search, could have been used if I were searching for it today. Indexes or images of South Carolina Death Records from 1915-1943 and 1944-1955 can be accessed free of charge. Many other collections are available there as well. Visit Record Search first for access to vital records.