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The Nature of Obituaries

Obituaries are, of course, any report of a person's death published in a newspaper or other periodical. Journals, magazines and even yearbooks include obituaries. However, for the purpose of this lesson, we will focus on newspaper obituaries.

The content of an obituary varies greatly. Many factors influence it, these include the time period, residence at death, importance of the deceased, local newspaper policy, availability of information and the size of the population covered by the newspaper. Not every person who died was mentioned in the local newspaper but, beginning about the 1870s, an increasing amount of local coverage was provided for local deaths.

At a bare minimum, these notices gave:

  • name
  • age
  • date of death (sometimes only giving the day of the week)
  • family information
  • names of survivors
  • church or mortuary holding the service and/or cemetery

A coffinIt was also not uncommon for them to include biographical information about the deceased. This could include his or her parents' names, occupation, military service, affiliations with local clubs, fraternities, or associations, when he or she settled in the local area and, perhaps half the time, birth information. It is this information we are seeking for our immigrants.

Of course, the inclusion of birth information for immigrants may not mean that a specific town is named. Some obituaries only mention that the deceased "came from Ireland in 1849," or "came to this country when still a young lad." While frustrating, even this information may be new to you, and helpful in finding the immigrant on a passenger list.

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