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How To Read An Obituary

As genealogists, we look at obituaries all the time. But do you really know how to read an obituary?


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1118 (approx.)
Labels: Beginner's Guide 
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The very existence of an obituary reveals simple facts about the deceased. They, or their family, was affluent enough to pay for an obituary to appear in the newspaper. As far back as the early 1800s newspapers ran notices clarifying that they would only run obituaries for a fee. A death notice, such as "Bob Smith died yesterday" might appear someplace in the gossip section of a newspaper, but an actual obituary only appeared if someone paid for it to be published.

Newspapers are not so different today. At least one conglomerate of numerous small town newspapers has a policy of publishing free obituaries – but they are incomplete. Specifically, free obituaries, although they do include the age of the deceased, do not include the birth date of the deceased, nor do they include a photograph.

Currently, a complete paid obituary, with the date of birth and a photo, runs about $50 or more. Many funeral homes receive a discounted rate for the obituary, and include the cost in the funeral arrangements. As a result, families are often unaware that they are paying for the obituary. Some cremation providers do include the cost of an obituary in their services. But this may vary, especially since cremation services are not always held immediately. My cousin's ashes were scattered, in a lovely ceremony, a year after she passed away.

Newspapers also reserve the right not to publish obituaries for individuals who moved away from the community some time prior to their death, although some will do so for a fee. If Grandpa passed away in Boca Raton, Florida where he retired, you'll likely find an obituary there. But, also research whether another obituary ran in his hometown of Nashville, Illinois. You might discover that his hometown ran a different, and more detailed, version. Some newspapers have a policy regarding who can be included in the list of relatives, limiting the inclusion to a certain number of "grands" and "greats."

Interpreting What Is Printed

Merely reading an obituary can reveal some things about the deceased. An obituary that does not include the date of birth, probably indicates a free obituary, which could mean a lot of things. For example, the deceased, or survivors, made no payment for a full obituary, for whatever reason; there might not have been many – or any – survivors to do that for the deceased; there might not have been the funds to do so; or maybe it was the will of the deceased not to pay for an obituary, preferring that their money be used for other things.

A full obituary, of course, can reveal a lot about the deceased, from birth to death and everything in between. Make note of education, military service, and memberships. That information will shed light on school directories, military directories and histories, and membership directories with information about the deceased.

Religious affiliation can be useful in locating where the deceased was buried. It is not likely that a member of a Catholic church was buried in a Jewish cemetery – although there are certainly exceptions! Religious histories and directories contain useful information such as when a child was christened; when someone joined a church; and information about services they performed such as being a deacon. In more recent times, there may also be a church newsletter with information about the deceased. Church publications might also carry a copy of an obituary. A newsletter version might also contain additional information about the deceased, beyond the traditional obituary.

The cause of death is an interesting tidbit that is also helpful in creating a family health history. Cause of death is not always listed but, if you read to the end of an obituary, you just might find a clue. An obituary that requests a donation be given to the American Cancer Society, in memory of the deceased, may have died from cancer. It isn't a guarantee, but in most cases you will find that it is true. An obituary that states there will be no visitation, often indicates that the person was emaciated and the family not wanting an open casket. While it is unpleasant to think about, it is a clue to consider when the cause of death is not given.

Of course, the actual cause of death is given on a death certificate. A copy of the death certificate, in more modern times, is given to the person who made the funeral arrangements or who has taken on the task of handling the final affairs of the deceased. Often that is the executor of the estate. The purpose of the death certificate is to provide proof that the person is deceased so that financial affairs, especially life insurance, can be processed. In most cases, we go to the courthouse to obtain a death certificate. But, the family, or the person who handled those final affairs should have an original copy, provided to them by the funeral home.

How accurate and complete are obituaries? By and large, they tend to be remarkably accurate. If a cause of death is given, it is based on the death certificate. Many families, however, prefer not to include cause of death – or they just don't think to do it.

Writing one's own obituary is a somewhat modern concept, except for famous individuals. Most obituaries are written on the spur of the moment by someone who is grieving, and attempting to make funeral arrangements, contact friends and relatives, and line up pall-bearers and limo drivers.

While many obituaries include a photograph or, in older newspapers, a sketch of the deceased, a certain percentage of obits run without a photo. Many people do not have a current, high-quality photograph available to run in their obituary – or at least not one that the family can easily find in a rush, while grieving and making funeral arrangements.

Plan Ahead for Your Own Obituary

Pre-planning a funeral is a boon to your family but it is also a genealogical "act of kindness." Funeral directors will help their clients write their obituary. They have standard style forms available, but you can add as much information as you would like. Nearly every funeral home with a website includes instructions for writing an obituary, along with templates and samples. Or, Google "writing an obituary" and you'll find a plethora of examples. One of the most interesting is found on the"Rutgers University website for writing an obituary for a faculty member.


Reading an obituary is not as simple as one might think. Read all those little details, beyond the first paragraph, and you just might discover more than you expected. And, do future generations a favor by creating your own obituary, including a photograph, and keeping both up to date.

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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