Webster's Dictionary defines an obituary as a death notice that often includes a brief biography. Traditionally, newspapers published them, and they still do. But today in the world of high-speed information exchange, you'll also find them online. But obituaries can appear in a number of publications, including church, club, and organization newsletters. Depending on the ethnic heritage of the deceased, his or her obituary may appear in their native language newspapers. And if the deceased served in the Armed Forces, their obituary may have been published in one of many military journals.
The first obituaries were short, simply containing the name of the deceased, birth and death dates, cause of death, names of surviving family members, and perhaps names of relatives who had died before them.
But it wasn't until the late 19th century that an editor of an English newspaper named John Thaddeus Delane began regularly publishing obituaries. He set aside a portion of a page to recognize death as an important event in a person's life. This followed the obsession the Victorians had with death. As a result, obituaries became longer and more flowery, including not only the deceased's biography, but also short poems and prayers.
As the new century dawned, improvements in printing processes allowed newspaper editors to add photos to the obituaries, increasing their elegance.
So how can obituaries help you in your search for information about your ancestors? An obituary appears for just about everyone who dies in the United States. Sure, there are a few who slip through the cracks, but generally nearly everyone's death is acknowledged somewhere. This means that there's an obituary out there for almost every person on your family tree–at least in the last 200 years.
From these little nuggets of information, you can obtain, besides the basics mentioned above, the cause and circumstances of the person's death, places of employment, the names of their parents, information about their education, immigration and naturalization, and military service. You may also discover information on how, when and where they met their spouse, when and where married, and information on children and their spouses, and grandchildren, and the places where the family resided. According to where the family held the memorial service, you can get a lead as to their religious affiliation and funeral home. And some obituaries will even give you information about the deceased's travel and special interests. Plus, if the person died after 1900, there's a good chance there will be a photograph accompanying the obituary.
However, editors published what information they received, without doing much editing or fact checking. Either the family sent a loved one's obituary directly to the newspaper, or they suppled the information to the funeral director, who then wrote it up and sent it in. Also, the family members closest to the deceased might have been too distressed to contribute any information, leaving the job to someone who may not have known all the exact information about the deceased. But it's start, nonetheless.
Each obituary, no matter how brief, contains vital information about a person's life. So before you look anywhere else, you should gather as many obituaries as you can for ancestors on your family tree. Send a list of ancestor's names around to all your relatives, asking them if they have copies of the obituaries of anyone on the list. Generally, the job of clipping and saving obituaries usually fell to the women in the family. Your grandmother may have clipped obituaries and stuck them in her Bible or perhaps in her cookbook. And she probably sent copies to relatives who lived a good distance away.
You can also find obituaries in the records of local historical and genealogical societies. When contacting these organizations, you must give them an exact date of death. You should also check the Library of Congress' History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 by Clarence Brigham. Plus, newspapers such as The New York Times, have compiled their own obituary indexes. Today, you can also search for obituaries online at www.obituaries.com and www.legacy.com.