Obituaries and death notices are some of the most sought-after documents for genealogists. In addition to gathering evidence about when and where a person died (which can be difficult to find in the era before statewide vital record-keeping), you might discover other details not available elsewhere: the deceased’s occupation and interests, names of the person’s family members, and the places where he or she lived (sometimes including the hard-to-find birth place of an immigrant). Obituaries also can give you a glimpse into the cultural nuances of the era.
Types of remembrances
It’s a common misunderstanding that any item in the newspaper concerning someone’s death is an obituary. But in reality, three types of remembrances may have been printed. Although not all are technically obituaries, you can use this guide to help you find and use all three:
• Death notice: A death notice is the most frequently published death-related item in the newspaper. These short pieces, which might simply announce the death or also publicize funeral arrangements, are in fact classified advertisements printed in the newspaper, and are usually written by the family.
History of obituaries
Although you should look for an obituary or death notice for everyone on your family tree—not just ancestors—it’s likely that you won’t find anything for some folks. While remembrances honoring deceased loved ones are common today (in papers or increasingly, online), this wasn’t always the case. American newspapers published articles about local deaths as early as the 1600s, but more-detailed obituaries didn’t commonly appear in newspapers until the early 1800s. Obituaries usually were reserved for individuals of standing in the local community, such as public servants, soldiers or people who were “interesting” for some reason. If a person didn’t fit those criteria, the family couldn’t afford a death announcement, or the deceased left behind few loved ones, you might not find a newspaper report of his death.
The proliferation of digitized newspapers, as well as obituary indexing projects, has made these sources easier to find than ever. It helps to know basic details such as when and where he died, but even if you don’t, you might get lucky with just a name search in an online newspaper database or obituary index. Use the Obituary Search Form on the last page of this guide to organize the details that will help with your obituary search.
• Digitized newspaper websites: To find obituaries in digitized newspapers, start by searching for your ancestor’s name. Try a woman’s married and maiden names. If necessary, narrow your results to papers published in the area of the death during the weeks following the death date.
Clues in obituaries
When you find the obituary or death announcement you need, enter the source information into your genealogy software (or other source-tracking system) and transcribe the article word for word. Examine it carefully for clues, such as:
Obituary Fast Facts
• Locations of obituary records: Local public and university libraries, state archives and digitized newspaper websites; also look for published indexes from local libraries and genealogical and historical societies
• Secondary source details: names, birth date/place, age at death, cause of death, place/time/date of death, relatives, funeral arrangements, biographical information
• Search terms: obituary, “obituary research,” “death notice,” “card of thanks”; plus genealogy, historical and/or a place name to narrow results
• Find in the FamilySearch catalog: Search for a place name, then scroll to Obituaries or Newspapers. Click on the record type to view details.
• Alternate and substitute records: death notices; cards of thanks; death certificates; cemetery records; funeral home records; articles about the deceased in society, club or church newsletters
Record at a Glance: Obituary
|1. You’ll often find the “who” clause in the first paragraph of an obituary. This is where the reporter draws you in by stating important details about the person who died, so you’ll want to read more.
2. Surviving family members—children, a spouse, parents or other relatives—are normally listed.
3. Many obituaries list the person’s birth and death information as well as parents’ names. In this obituary, Mrs. Mayo’s parents and maternal grandfather are included.
4. The amount of biographical information varies from obituary to obituary. Mrs. Mayo’s birth in a foreign country, the circumstances of her move to Virginia and information about her youth are included here.
5. If the deceased was a notable member of society, the reporter may include quotes from his or her associates.
Record at a Glance: Foreign-Language Death Notice
1. Then you find an item in a foreign-language newspaper, Google Translate is your friend. Aids such as our Genealogist’s Instant Translation Guide also
come in handy.
2. Obituaries can be treasure troves for immigrant ancestors, as they may list the country or town they came from. Anna was from Schapen, Germany.
3. If there’s no birth date, look for an age at death. According to this obituary, Anna was 81 years, 7 months and 21 days old when she died.
4. Family members who wrote obituaries sometimes signed their names. Heinrich Seeger, Anna’s son-in-law, wrote this death notice.
5. In the 1800s, it was popular to include poems in obituaries or death announcements. This one evokes images of resting in gentle slumber in the bosom of the earth, and how one day her family will follow her in death.
• Ancestor Hunt: Obituary Search
• Ancestry.com Obituary Collection
• Chronicling America
• Cyndi’s List: Obituaries
• History of Obituaries
• National Obituary Archive
• Newspaper Obituaries on the Net
• Obituary Central
• Obits for Life
• Obituary Depot
• Online Searchable Death Indexes & Records: A Genealogy Guide
• USGenWeb Obituary Project
• The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson (Harper Perennial)
• How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers by Lisa Louise Cooke (Genealogy Gems)
• Life Writing and Victorian Culture by David Amigoni (Ashgate Publishing)
• Newcomers’ Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told in Obituaries From The Times by Peter Unwin (Bloomsbury Academic)
• Obituaries: A Guide to Sources by Betty Jarboe (G. K. Hall)
• Obituaries in American Culture by Janice Hume (University Press of Mississippi)
• Obituaries in Genealogy: A Research Tool by Cari A. Taplin (Millennia Corporation)
• Searching For Your Ancestors in Historic Newspapers by Claudia C. Breland (Amazon Digital Services)
b. during the Civil War
c. never, the family always writes them
2. You can find an obituary in:
b. company newsletters
c. funeral home websites
d. all of the above
3. An obituary is:
a. a primary source
b. a secondary source
c. always factually correct
d. none of the above
Exercise A: Go to the Chronicling America website and locate the obituary for Peter Wheeler in The Wenatchee Daily World from Wenatchee, Wash., dated Sept. 1, 1908.
1. When was Peter’s funeral to be held?
2. What are the names of his three daughters’ spouses?
3. What is Peter’s estimated birth date?
4. Where did Peter come from?
- If your ancestor was well-known, look for a feature article about him in newspaper sections outside the obituaries or death notices sections.
- Don’t forget cemetery websites when looking for obituaries or death notices. If you’re lucky, a kind volunteer on Find A Grave may have posted a transcription of an obituary with the gravestone image.
• Genealogy guide to searching in online newspapers
• Obituary finders
• Using old newspapers
• Exploring Digital Newspapers download
• Online Newspapers web guide
• Top Free Websites for Obituaries download