One of the first things families do when a person dies is publish news of the death. Death notices and obituaries in local newspapers serve several purposes.
First, they notify those close to the family so they can comfort surviving family members and assist in any funeral arrangements.
Second, they notify the community and friends about the funeral.
Third, they give notice to creditors and debtors that it is time to settle the estate.
Usually the smaller the community, the more likely the obituary will be extensive, providing more details about the person's life, his or her family, the events which led up to death, and the survivors. Check newspapers for death notices at the local and state libraries where the death took place. Most public libraries maintain a collection of their towns' newspapers, and most state libraries do it for the entire state. Genealogical societies and DAR chapters often provide obituary indices for cities and counties, too.
Experienced researchers let each piece of evidence generate new leads and more genealogical evidence. Comb through obituaries for every possible lead.
How can data in an obituary be evaluated to discover more information?
1. Place of residence: Check city and county directories to determine
a. how long the person may have lived in the area,
b. if family members lived nearby,
c. if an occupation is listed it could lead to business records, and
d. if a place of origin or birth is provided.
2. Age: A year of birth can be determined from it.
3. Cause of death: Health details can lead to other sources of information if the death was due to a prolonged or chronic illness.
4.Location of death: If the death occurred in a hospital or nursing home, seek the institution's records for additional family details such as date of admission, responsible person(s), lists of visitors, attending physician(s), etc.
5. Membership in organizations: Search the records of any specifically named organization for additional data.
6. Lists of surviving family members: Check for married names and other residences for these family members. The obituary may be the only evidence of a marriage you have!
7. Church: Check church records for births, blessings, baptisms, ordinances, marriages and deaths of family members.
8. Funeral home or mortuary: Check funeral home records for details of death, including the financially responsible party, minister, and pallbearers, and information on other deceased family members from the same area. Modern funeral homes maintain remembrance cards and memorial registers which family, friends, and acquaintances often sign. The National Yellow Book of Funeral Home Directors can help you locate funeral homes in the US. Funeral directors are valuable sources of information.
9. Cemetery: Check cemetery records of the cemetery, paying attention to burial plots and locations. The business records of a cemetery may include plat maps that indicate who purchased the site and who is buried in it. They can also include information about the deceased such as date of death, date of interment, nativity information, next of kin or significant other, information about parents, and data on any church or funeral home involved. If a cemetery is no longer maintained, check the holdings of the local historical society and local public library to "uncover" some of the old cemetery records.
Burial in another cemetery other than the family's may mean the ancestor was buried with the spouse's parents and open whole new line of research.
Additional Value of Obituaries
1. Prior to Vital Records, older obituaries provided information otherwise unavailable.
2. Look for obituaries not only for direct ancestors but also for siblings and children. One obituary may give information which your own ancestor's and other immediate relatives' obituaries do not have.
3. Don't overlook obituaries for other people in the same area with the same surname as a possible line of research.
4. Notice of Death at a former place of residence or at a descendant's locale may reveal where to search for death and burial records, mayhaps where the now deceased was visiting. Also, obituaries may have been placed in newspapers where the other children resided at the time.
5. "Suddenly" or "unexpectedly" should alert you that the death may not have been natural; check for an inquest.
6. Look at more than just the obituary page, especially if the person was well known in the local area. The death may be classified under "news" and could be a local society item. In the case of murder or suicide, it could even be front page.
7. According to George G. Morgan, "obituaries are secondary records, and should be used only as pointers to help you locate other corroborating documentation." I agree, but I consider them primary evidence for place and date of death because they are recorded in close proximity to both. No, obituary information is not always correct, but you won't have to strain your brain to recall other primary documents with errors, either.
8. Finally, look for multiple obituaries. If there are other newspapers in the same county, check them out, too! Perhaps another family member posted it or a friend or organization to which the deceased belonged posted it.
Online Obituary Sources
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.
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