Registration of births, recording deaths by age, sex and cause, and calculating mortality levels and differentials are fundamental to evidence-based health policy, monitoring and evaluation. Yet few of the countries with the greatest need for these data have functioning systems to produce them despite legislation providing for the establishment and maintenance of vital registration. Sample vital registration (SVR), when applied in conjunction with validated verbal autopsy procedures and implemented in a nationally representative sample of population clusters represents an affordable, cost-effective, and sustainable short- and medium-term solution to this problem. SVR complements other information sources by producing age-, sex-, and cause-specific mortality data that are more complete and continuous than those currently available. The tools and methods employed in an SVR system, however, are imperfect and require rigorous validation and continuous quality assurance; sampling strategies for SVR are also still evolving. Nonetheless, interest in establishing SVR is rapidly growing in Africa and Asia. Better systems for reporting and recording data on vital events will be sustainable only if developed hand-in-hand with existing health information strategies at the national and district levels; governance structures; and agendas for social research and development monitoring. If the global community wishes to have mortality measurements 5 or 10 years hence, the foundation stones of SVR must be laid today.