- What original source usually provides more information about its subject
than any other original record?
- What source may provide cause of death before death certificates were
- What source tells you what became of Aunt Jenny's children?
- Besides church records, what source can tell you which specific church
(congregation) a person belonged to?
- What is the best source for learning about the lives of female ancestors?
- What is the one "biographical sketch" most available for
the common man?
- What source provides occupational details, such as the company an
ancestor worked for?
- What source do family historians often ignore in their research?
If you answered "Obituaries" to each of the above questions,
than you have at least read the title of this article. But, more than
that, you are beginning to get an understanding (if you didn't already
have one) of the great value that this under-appreciated source has for
Yes, of course, you know about obituaries. After all, you have been reading
them in the newspaper for years. Perhaps you even helped write the obituary
for a parent, grandparent, or other loved one. But obituaries are like
several other records we encounter in our everyday, modern life; ones
we often fail to consider when researching our ancestors and other relatives.
In this way, they are like tax records, voter registration, and telephone
books. Our own names, as well as our spouse and children, are on these
"modern" records, but we often don't make them a regular part
of our family research.
There are several reasons why we overlook obituaries so often. First,
we don't teach enough about them in our books and genealogy classes, either
in formal settings, or online. Second, we don't understand the scope and
coverage of obituaries. Third, we believe they are more difficult to access.
Well, this article is an effort to overcome (in part) the first problem
while specifically addressing the second and third issues.
Scope and Coverage of Obituaries
Newspapers have been published on a regular basis in North America since
1704 since the four page Boston News-Letter made its debut. However,
they grew slowly until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth
century changed many aspects of American life. These changes included
the power printing press and the railroads, both making it easier to get
and distribute news over a greater distance.
After the American Revolution, as communities grew, local news became
increasingly important for the newspapers. No longer was everyone familiar
with what was happening locally. In the early 1800s, death notices began
to increase, but they were seldom more than a simple notice: the deceased's
name, age, and residence were are usually all one finds in these early
The traditional biographical obituary, with which we are so familiar,
primarily developed after the U.S. Civil War. As the interest in local
news grew, newspapers added more and more information and a wider range
of people to their traditional death notices. While there will not be
an obituary on every person who died in the latter half of the 1800s,
you will find them for a very large number of the adults, especially those
who had been resident in a community for a number of years.
By the time of the U.S. Centennial (1876), with the growing interest
in history, obituaries may have included any (but seldom all) of the following:
- Name of the deceased
- Age and/or birth date
- Spouse and children's names
- Other survivors: siblings, aunts and uncles, grandchildren, nieces,
- Cause of death
- Religious membership/Church affiliation
- Fraternal or social memberships
- Past social or government positions
- Migration (when they settled in the local community)
- Birth town, even in foreign countries
- Parent's names
- Funeral arrangements
- Cemetery of burial
- Noteworthy life events (such as military service)
- Information on grandparents and ancestry
- and a host of other possible information
As time progressed, even more persons were subjects of even more detailed,
biographical obituaries, encompassing more and more items on the above
list. By the 1890s, it is rare not to find a reasonable obituary of a
longtime adult member of the local community. Of course, like with most
biographical records, the greater public interest in the individual, the
greater depth of coverage.
One word of caution. This description fits best in rural communities
and small cities. The larger cities of the nineteenth century, such as
New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and many others, did not include as much
information on as many residents. Therefore, locating obituaries of family
members in such cities continues to be problematic.
Obituaries were not just printed in local newspapers. Many church denominations
and ethnic groups published newspapers focused on the group they served,
not the community in which they were printed. While many ethnic newspapers
did have a geographic focus, many others did not. For example, the Luxembourger
Gazette was published in Dubuque, Iowa, but included news from every
Luxembourg community throughout the United States. The presence of an
every-name index to almost 50 years of the newspaper aids users in finding
thousands of obituaries for this group.
Religious groups have also published newspapers. Their pages are filled
with news about the denomination, and that news includes obituaries of
members, regardless of where they lived. Larger denominations, such as
Roman Catholic, will have a geographic focus (typically that of a diocese),
but smaller groups may cover several states within the same issue.
The information in ethnic and religious newspapers is particularly useful,
since they often deal with immigrants, and may be the only source identifying
the foreign home of the deceased. Consider the following obituary, translated
from the original in Der Christliche Apologete, 1895:
Koch - sister Sophie Koch nee Moor died 24 March 1895 of a stroke.
She was born in Grosseneixen, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the 1st of June
1831. She came to this country in 1857 and married Christoph Koch the
same year. Christmas Eve of the same year they converted to God with
the help of Brother Fischback and joined the church. In 1864 they came
from Jackson County to here and joined the parish of Zion. Sister K
was a faithful member to the end. In addition to her grieving husband,
she leaves 7 adult children and 2 grandchildren.
Zion, OhioJ.G. Grimmer, Assistant pastor in the Ironton district
For more information about denominational newspapers, see Richard Dougherty's
chapter, "Published Church Records" in Printed Sources
(Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1998).
Locating Obituaries and Newspapers
Unfortunately, there is no master index of all obituaries
in all newspapers. In fact, most newspapers don't even have an index to
all the obituaries which have appeared in their pages over the years.
Of course, if you know the date of death (or approximate date), you can
obtain copies of the newspapers for that time frame, and begin the search,
page by page. However, there are easier ways.
First, determine if there is an index for the obituaries. One useful
tool to begin with is Betty Jarboe's Obituaries: A Guide to Sources,
2d edition (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989). Primarily an index of published
obituaries in book form, the second edition adds published compilations
of cemetery records, making this list broader than records typically considered
as obituaries. The appendixes include a list of obituary card files that
have been compiled by major libraries, and a list of (now outdated) on-line
databases that contain obituaries. Arranged geographically, with the United
States followed by individual states and a few foreign countries, you
can also use the index at the back of the book, which alphabetically lists
authors, titles, and subjects to find known sources, especially those
which may defy geographic identification.
Obituaries are often indexed by local genealogical societies, and those
indexes may be published as an ongoing series in the society's periodical.
To locate such indexes, search the Periodical Source Index (PERSI)
for the state or county of interest, and the subject "Obituaries."
This important index is available in most genealogical libraries, online
at Ancestry.com, and on CD-ROM from Ancestry.
Often an obituary index is too lengthy to publish in a periodical, so
an entire book is published for distribution to individuals and libraries.
Most such books end up in major libraries, with the Family History Library
having perhaps the most complete collection. Examine their catalog online
at FamilySearch.org for the locality where the newspaper of interest was
published. You can also contact local libraries or historical societies
in the town where the newspaper was published and inquire if they have
an index. This approach will uncover published versions, as well as unpublished
card or computer indexes that reside only at such repositories. Of course,
you can also contact the newspaper and ask if they have an index, or know
of a separately separately-prepared index, to their past obituaries.
Recent obituaries, generally from about 1996 forward, in major newspapers
are archived at Ancestry.com in their collection of UMI obituaries. UMI
is a company that microfilms newspapers, and, in recent years, collects
electronic versions as well.
Second, you will need to obtain access to the newspapers of interest.
Don't assume that there was only one newspaper. Until well into the 20th
century, many small towns still had two newspapers. Sometimes the deceased
died at a child's home, far from where she lived most of her life. If
so, an obituary may be published in both locations, and perhaps even more.
Today, most older newspapers are available on microfilm, and can be sent
directly to your local library through the Interlibrary Loan program.
Therefore, I usually start my search for newspapers in the book, Newspapers
in Microform: United States, 1948-1983 (2 vols. Washington, D.C.:
Library of Congress, 1984). Although slightly dated, this lists most U.S.
newspapers which are available on microfilm, and even lists many of the
repositories where the microfilms are housed. Your local library should
have a copy. Of course, your local librarian has access to many other
sources to help him or her learn who has a copy the library can borrow
for you. There may be some small fees for shipping the microfilm, and
you will have to use it at that library.
Of course, if your travels take you to the location where the newspaper
was published, you have other options. Most active newspaper offices have
a relatively complete back file (also often on microfilm), and you can
ask to view the newspaper at their office. Of course, the newspaper you
are seeking may have ceased publication, so this may not be an option.
But, on the other hand, the current newspaper may be the same newspaper
with a name change, or may be a merger of two or more previous newspapers,
so a little research into the history of the newspaper may be useful.
In addition, the local library in a newspaper's town should have a copy
of the newspaper. This is often a better way to search, as you do not
disturb the current newspaper office, and a library generally has longer
research hours than does a commercial publisher.
You also know that there is no rule in genealogy that you have to do
all the searching yourself. You can ask a local person, such as a librarian,
or a newspaper worker (often they have a staff librarian) to look up the
obituary, but only if you have a page reference (from an index), or at
least the date of death. On occasion, you may want to hire a local researcher,
who should know about indexes, access, fees, and other important information.
Third, if you determine that there is no index to obituaries for the
area and time frame you are researching, you will have to search the newspapers.
This means that you will want to determine, as closely as possible, when
and where a person died. Many genealogical sources may provide this information,
including death certificates, cemetery inscriptions, church records, and
family sources. Failing those sources, look for a probate, which will
help you approximate the date of death.
With the newspaper in hand (usually on microfilm), begin your search
a few days (or two or three weeks if a weekly newspaper) before
the death. Your death date may be incorrect, but more importantly, if
the subject was very ill, there may be notice, especially in rural newspapers,
of relatives coming to visit. After the death, obituaries were typically
published about two days later, but you should begin the day after death,
as it may have run that soon, depending on distance, deadlines, etc. Search
at least a week to 10 days after the death. Sometimes it took time for
someone to write and submit the obituary. If the paper was only issued
weekly, check at least three issues after the date of death.
Don't stop your search once you find a death notice or a fuller obituary.
An initial death notice may precede the obituary by a couple of days.
After the obituary, you may find additional notices, sometimes even a
"card of thanks" by the family in gratitude for those who expressed
Once you have examined a few issues of a newspaper, you will find that
obituaries are typically run in the same location, along with other local
news, and sometimes near the classified advertisements. Therefore, you
don't have to read the entire newspaper. Larger newspapers, with multiple
sections, won't place obituaries in the sports, finance, or world news
sections, for example. On the other hand, if the death was sudden, possibly
criminal, accidental, or if the deceased was a notable person in the community,
there may be a news story associated with the death. Typically it will
not be with the obituaries, but on an earlier "news" oriented
page. In such situations, also watch for a formal obituary in the next
couple of days.
Now, take this new information and get searching. Examine your records
for persons who died within the last 150 years or so. If you don't have
their obituaries, begin the hunt. It is fun, easy, inexpensive, and most
of all, will add significant information to what you know about each of
them. Who knows, it may also give you the clues you need to overcome a