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 and schools attended
- occupation, and if retired, prior occupation
- surviving siblings and their residences
- place of birth
- place and date of marriage and/or date of spouse’s death
- 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
Where will you find obituaries?
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.
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. The advantage of microfilm is the ability to borrow them through interlibrary loan. Many newspapers and obituaries are turning up in digital format on websites such as Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and GenealogyBank.
Historical and genealogical societies often have newspaper resources for their immediate area or are able to help you locate newspaper microfilm in their area. To locate an historical or genealogical society in your research area, visit the State Pages at the U.S. GenWeb Project. Many state pages also include a list of societies with links to their websites.
The U. S. Newspaper List is searchable by state. While not an all-inclusive list, the website provides links to current newspapers for many towns and cities.
Local libraries, both public and academic, are often depositories for newspapers, both in print and on microfilm. Don’t overlook college and university libraries. Many of these academic libraries have Special Collections of local history. Newspapers played a large role in local history and are often a part of those collections.
Many state archives are depositories for newspaper microfilm in their states. And many of these archives will lend these films through your local public library’s interlibrary loan system. The National Archives provides a list of each state’s archive on their website. Each entry provides contact information for each archive as well as a link to that archive’s website.
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has select newspapers in its microfilm holdings, which can be found in their online catalog. Microfilm can be loaned to your local Family History Center. Visit the Find a Family History Center page on the FamilySearch website to find a Family History Center near you.
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. 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 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.
- 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.
- 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. From the obituary we do not know who her parents were; however, research into earlier census records should find Esther living with her parents.
- 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.