The events that frame life – namely birth and death – provide family historians with some of their most useful research materials. Obituaries, in particular, can leave a wealth of valuable clues … clues that can be used to reconstruct a life.
Below are some tips for finding and interpreting obituaries.
Where to look:
Church and ethnic newspapers: If your ancestor was an active churchgoer, you might want to search the local church newspaper for his or her obituary. Similarly, the obituary of an immigrant ancestor might appear in an ethnic newspaper. Searching these alternative publications is well worth the effort, especially since these obituaries are typically longer on detail.
Surname Indexes: If you're searching in an index or online database, you might want to search under surname only. Even if you can't find your exact ancestor, a surname search might yield the names of relatives living in the same area.
What you'll find:
Clues in obituaries can lead you to other sources of information. For example, a death described as "sudden" might prompt a search at the local coroner's office.
The deceased's final city or town of residence isn't always the best place to go searching for death records. That's why it's important to scan the obituary for an exact place of death. It's possible the individual died in the home of a child or while traveling.
Survivors: A long list of surviving family members is typically included with most obituaries. Simply contacting these surviving family members can provide a readymade network for sharing and comparing information. If the obituary is older, and many of the family members are now deceased, at the very least you'll have a new list of names to research.
One more tip:
Wartime Obituaries: If an ancestor died during wartime, make all efforts to secure an accurate death date. Often, when someone died overseas, the obituary wasn't printed until the time of interment – sometimes a few years after the actual death.