Obituaries can provide the genealogist with a wealth of information. They can provide clues for new research paths and answers to brick-wall questions. They can provide details into the culture in which your ancestors lived and a glimpse into their everyday lives. Obituaries are a valuable tool for the genealogist and should not be overlooked.
While some obituaries have appeared in newspapers as early at the 18th century, they didn’t become commonplace until the mid-1800s. Some early obituaries were very brief, merely mentioning that “Michael Brown died at his home on Saturday last.” Others resemble mini biographies. The details included in obituaries vary greatly across the years and across geographic locations. The prominence of a person within a community may also dictate the amount of space and detail included in an obituary.
Keep in mind that information gleaned from an obituary should be verified by other sources. There is the potential for misinformation; accuracy is always an issue. We can never be sure who provided the information to the newspaper editor for the obituary; therefore, an obituary is considered a secondary source. But, the valuable information included in many obituaries cannot be discounted, either. Most obituaries will point the way to other primary sources ripe for further research.
An obituary may include any of the following information:
- next of kin, including spouse, children and their spouses, grandchildren
- current and prior residences
- education level and schools attended
- occupation, and if retired, prior occupation
- surviving siblings and their residences
- place of birth
- place and date of marriage
- date of spouse’s death, if deceased
- names of parents
- military duty
- membership in fraternal, civic, and social organizations
- church affiliation
- health condition prior to death
- cause of death
- cemetery where buried
- officiating pastor at the funeral
- funeral director/undertaker
Most obituaries were published in newspapers, so you will want to identify the newspapers that covered the town or region where your ancestor lived. Be sure to look across township and county lines when looking for newspapers. The closest town with a newspaper to a rural hamlet might be in the next county.
Before searching for newspapers, determine which newspapers existed in the time and place you are researching. Be sure to look across township and county lines. The closest town with a newspaper to a rural hamlet might be in the next county.
The US Newspaper List is searchable by state. While not an all-inclusive list, the website provides links to current newspapers for many towns and cities.
The U. S. Newspaper Directory on the Library of Congress website is searchable by state, county, city, time period, or keyword and provides publication information about newspapers from 1690 to today.
A simple Google search may discover a newspaper in your research area. Simply type the town or county, state, and the word “newspaper” into the search box for a list of links to newspapers in that area.
You will not likely find newspapers in their original newsprint form. Because of their bulky size and ability to deteriorate rapidly, newspapers are perfect candidates for microfilming. Many historic newspapers are available on microfilm and many of those microfilms have been digitized. There is no one central depository holding all digitized newspapers, so some sleuthing will need to be done to locate the newspaper you are interested in. The Microfilmed and Digitized Newspaper Sources section of the Newspapers GenGuide will help you locate an online source for the newspaper(s) you seek.
After you find an obituary for your ancestor, are you done? Perhaps not. In addition to the obituary, there may be a death notice (typically a few lines written for the newspaper by the funeral director). The death notice may not be in the same issue as the obituary. While the death notice will probably appear in an edition of the newspaper fairly soon after a person’s death, an obituary might not appear for several days or weeks. Be sure to check several subsequent editions of the newspaper to locate both of these notices.
If the obituary mentions that your ancestor had been ill prior to his or her death, you might want to check issues leading up to the death date for mention about the illness. Word of the illness might have been reported by a family member in a neighborhood column of the newspaper, or perhaps there was an illness or epidemic in the area.
After the death of men and some widowed women, particularly in the 1800s and early 1900s, there often was an estate sale. Notices for the sale will appear in the newspaper; some will list all the personal items that will be sold. These lists can be valuable to help you learn more about your ancestor. On some occasions, there are notices about the probate process for the deceased’s will, including names of heirs.
The final word: don’t stop with the obituary. Keep researching the newspaper for other clues and notices about your ancestor that will come into play after his or her death.
An obituary is not a primary source document. The information in an obituary is only as reliable as the informant providing the information and the accuracy of the typesetter at the newspaper office. Just who was the informant for the obituary? It might have been a family member, the funeral director, a family friend, or even the newspaper editor. How can you determine who the informant was? Unless it is explicitly stated, you won’t know the source of the information. Therefore, use obituaries as a compass to point toward other primary sources.
The following obituary was dated 19 January 1927*:
Mrs. Herbert Bunn died Monday morning at 4 o’clock at her home in Rosedale after an illness of several months. Mrs. Bunn, before her marriage, was Esther Rogers. She is survived by her husband and daughter, Dorothy; a sister, Mrs. Benjamin Dyer, and a brother William Rogers, of the Pennington Road. The funeral will be held from the Rosedale chapel Thursday afternoon at 2:00 o’clock. Interment in the Pennington cemetery.
This short, five sentence obituary is filled with clues for further research.
- We have a date of death. The newspaper this obituary was published in went to print each Wednesday; therefore, Mrs. Herbert Bunn died on 17 January 1927. We can now search for a death certificate.
- We have a current place of residence: Rosedale. We can locate this hamlet on a map and locate land records for her husband, Herbert Bunn.
- Mrs. Herbert Bunn had been ill for several months. Are there articles in previous issues of the newspaper that speak to this?
- Esther’s husband survived her. We will want to search the 1930 census records to locate him as well as her daughter, Dorothy.
- The obituary gives the names of two siblings: Mrs. Benjamin Dyer and William Rogers. Prior research has revealed that Esther had three siblings: Susie, Howard, and William. Mrs. Benjamin Dyer would likely be Esther’s sister Susie; this could be verified with census research. Her brother Howard is not mentioned in the obituary and, therefore, perhaps predeceased her. We also have a place of residence for her brother, William, who lived on Pennington Road.
- Esther is survived by a daughter, Dorothy. Prior research did not find a child enumerated with the Bunns in the 1920 census, and when Herbert is enumerated in the 1930 census, daughter Dorothy is not living with him. This obituary has been the only clue that the couple had a child. The next step is to search for a birth record.
- There is no mention of Esther’s parents. Perhaps their names were merely omitted. Perhaps her parents predeceased her. Mrs. Bunn’s maiden name was Esther Rogers. With that information, we can search earlier censuses using Ancestry’s every-name index. This search may lead to her parents’ names.
- Analyzing census records will narrow down a marriage date for Herbert and Esther. In fact, Esther was living with her parents in 1910 and was married in 1920; therefore, we have narrowed the search for a marriage record to those ten intervening years.
- Esther is buried in the Pennington cemetery. We are now able to search the cemetery records and to visit the cemetery to view the tombstone.
*The obituary wording as it appeared in a 1927 newspaper; however, the names have been changed.
Updated July 2017