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Observing for Obituaries

The difference between a death notice and an obituary is discussed and suggestions are made for finding them.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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This piece was originally called "digging up death notices" but cooler heads prevailed, fortunately for the reader. As you will discover, the Internet is a great tool for research but it is by no means the only one which should be used.

I was speaking with another researcher recently who opined that it was no secret that obituaries are prime genealogical resources, but that they are not always that easy to find. A lot of obituary collections are out there, like those on Ancestry or other commercial sites, but are of a more recent period. Or there are volunteer sites which vary greatly in content. Of course, there are the major newspaper websites, but even there, so many of the little newspapers are not present – and obits were also published in other places, besides newspapers.

And we cannot just limit these to tiny notices in a paper. We want to find out more about the person and his or her life, not just dates. (There is a wonderful poem called "The Dash," by Linda Ellis, which, in summary, conveys that a person's story is not just the start and end dates of their life but the "dash" that connects them.)

And remember, too, that an obituary, with rare exceptions, is not written by the person himself or herself, but by other people. There might be inaccuracies in it.

And what might you find?

The name, age, and residence of the decedent; family members and their relation to him or her; other family information such as parents, siblings, and children, or other descendants, and where those people live; possibly religious and military information; clergy and church names; and funeral home and burial information. These should not be taken as gospel truth (no pun intended), but rather as guides or pointers to other sources that can be investigated.

Newspapers generally publish death notices, which are short little pieces saying who died and when, where services are being held, and where the person is to be buried/cremated. That's all well and good. But an obituary is a different cat. I like to think of the difference as follows. Death notices may be courtesy of the newspaper (but not so much anymore because most papers will charge for it by length). An obituary will, of course, have the same information as the death notice, but often a story is told about how the person lived; it may mention churches and social clubs they attended or were involved with; places they lived; how they may have died; the survivors' names (and sometimes where they live). The obituary may be paid by the family to, in effect, "advertise" the death.

A lot of folks fail to see the important distinction between death notices and obituaries, despite the fact that they are completely different entities. The two should not be confused. But also be advised that suicides might have a death notice but not a biographical obit, while a murder victim may have an obit (but only a very brief death notice). There are also varying factors – the length of the item, for one (a death notice is usually brief, while an obit can be quite long). Yet, locally, we are starting to see very long death notices with pictures, and not an obit. This could be because the local paper no longer prints death notices for free, but charges by the word. This brings us to another factor, cost. As newspapers circle the drain of even being in existence, they charge for everything. What if the survivors cannot afford much more than a $25 death notice? An obituary is never written and never published.

The Washington (D. C.) Post has the information that an obituary is a news story that is published without charge. But that's their take on it. Death notices are paid advertisements and, unlike obituaries, usually include details of funeral arrangements. Each newspaper is different. It is not at all unusual for a suburban paper to have a much longer article about a resident of that place, while the main city paper has just a tiny death notice. Then again, large urban areas with many papers are a special case. Think Boston, New York City and environs, Los Angeles, etc. There is not just one place to look. New York, in its infinite wisdom, defunded the State Newspaper Project in 2007, which allowed people to find out what papers were published where, and when, and who holds copies now. So, you have to continue trying and keep the following in mind.

Where can you find these things? There are a number of places:

1. Obviously, in a newspaper. But is it online, transcribed, in a scrapbook, in a published book, in a periodical (genealogy society, or otherwise?) Maybe in a term paper or dissertation on a college web site for a history course (words to the wise for these, pick rich and famous relatives), and, are these sources online and indexed? For the most part, no. Based upon my own organization, we have a lot of individual file cards in many locations, and only a very few have been combined into a searchable online format. The vast majority must be searched in person. (Let's not get into a discussion of why such things are not online, or why some places charge a large fee for searching and copying).

2. Online. Many are available on the major databases. But many are not. An example is my library – we have a million names indexed for the last 60 years, but only the index is online – the underlying death notices are still under copyright to a newspaper which will not allow images to be made available online.

3. Commercial databases. See above. You pay to play.

4. Library databases. Also see above. They often are free to search, but that depends if the library has an online presence. A local library just went online in 2010, although it's been settled and functioning for 200 years. It does have its papers on microfilm going back that far, but no indexing at all. You need to show up in person. Or, the high school that has bound volumes of the newspaper for the next town over, in the next county. But the second-mentioned town has nothing!

5. Historians' offices. One of my favorite stories is finding 50 years worth of family death information in files in the attic of a person who was retiring to a nursing home because of ill health, and had these kept in his attic. No one knew that they were there except him, and he was the town historian of that location. So ask!

6. Card files. These can be in libraries, historical societies, historian's offices, individuals with an interest in such things, genealogical societies, hobbyists, etc.

7. History books. Some of the old-time county histories will have obituaries printed in them

8. Digitized regimental histories. Many which were done, well after the U. S. Civil War have memoriams and obits for soldiers who have died since their last regimental reunion. Some, but not all, of these might have been digitized. But you may have to know the unit.

9. Funeral home or mortuary records.

10. Cemetery records. I was researching for a friend and, lo and behold, in the middle of the cemetery burial book was a handwritten obituary about the man I was seeking. He had committed suicide and that was mentioned in detail in the handwritten entry.

11. Coroner's reports. Perhaps.

12. Legal proceedings. Thirty years ago I was researching a family where three brothers had immigrated here. Two stayed, one went back to Germany. When that brother died 40 years later, they all still jointly owned some property. In order to extinguish the third brother's interest, the lawyers had to find and identify the man's children and grandchildren back in Germany, along with their (at that time) current addresses. What made the story even better was an elderly relative came here to visit, and when I showed her my copies of that information, she had known all of them personally!

13. Church bulletins. Yes, people have death information mentioned in their church bulletins, which obviously are printed and handed out every Sunday.

14. Newsletters of fraternal or union organizations; alumni associations, etc. Ditto for these sources. But try and find an index!

15. Professional organizations (think doctors, and lawyers to start with).

16. Not all digitized newspaper are completely OCR'd. I recently checked the local papers at, which is a very good site. But sure as shooting, an examination of the actual microfilm gave two obits that I was seeking, and they did not come up in the online index. On the other hand, recently I found a long article about a man who died in Syracuse, New York, after having immigrated from Sweden to Jamestown, New York. He was murdered in Syracuse, after planning to run away with a much younger woman and drawing out all his cash. No wonder the wife back in Sweden never spoke of him again!

Several libraries (local and state) also have information on their web sites, for example:

Death Notices, Obituaries, and Death Certificates

Menomonee Falls Public Library: Obituaries and Death Notices

But do be advised that they are not free online for long. You often have to pay to see older ones, even those as little as a week old. They are seen as a profit center. And it's not just libraries or newspapers. A local county probate (surrogate's) court charges $90 for the search you can do in person for free. Again, it's what the market will bear. I am aware of libraries that will make a copy for free or 25 cents. I know of another that charges $75 each. Believe me, they are not getting rich off of this – they are not even breaking even. They do this because their funding sources demand that they charge that much, making them into profit centers instead of for the public good.

But sometimes someone dies while institutionalized, either in the past or the present. What if someone died in a nursing home, poorhouse, in an asylum, or a prison? There are various laws that must be followed (which generally are at the state level, not federal) about the disposition of human bodies. Then again, the time period and location have a lot to do with that. I once found a detailed obit in the civil commitment for an incompetency proceeding. Death notices and obits might be found in all of those sources.

It's. Not. All. Online. Repeat that!

Sometimes you just have to show up in person and turn the pages.

While there are some commercial obituary websites that are really good, one has to subscribe to them as an individual. We at the library had a very good commercial database of newspapers that included obituaries. It was thorough and easy to use, but when the invoice came, it was far in excess of the whole department's budget. We regrettably had to discontinue it. And the financial cuts have gotten worse since then.

Sample Websites (by no means comprehensive):

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

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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