How To Use Obituaries in Your Genealogical Search

Aug 19

Finding detailed information about specific ancestors is one of the most challenging aspects of genealogical research. When you’re dealing with recent generations of ancestors, one of the most illuminating records that you can access is an obituary. Obituaries are often written by loved ones, or by professional journalists after interviewing the deceased’s family or friends. These documents may contain numerous details that streamlines your research, as well as anecdotes that bring an ancestor’s personality to life. Here’s a closer look at how researchers use obituaries in the genealogical research process, and a list of resources to help you track them down.

Why obituaries are helpful

Obituaries are typically published in newspapers after the death of an individual. Obituaries contain information such as full name, birth date, death date, locations, and the names of surviving family members. It may also contain additional details like place of birth, immigration status, military service, fraternal organization affiliations, and much more. It’s a genealogist’s dream to access these data points in one consolidated form, often related by the deceased’s closest kin or friends. Obituaries can help you focus in on your future research, developing hypotheses on specific areas for further inquiry.

A note of caution

It’s important to fact-check what you read in obituaries. Bereaved families may be relying on family lore, spotty records, and other unreliable sources when pulling together information. Details can become confused during the painful period following the death of a loved one. When relatives passed on who lived in times or locations without good record keeping, in many cases exact dates of birth were unknown. In other cases, the specificity of details might be unclear. For example, an obituary might report that an ancestor was born in London, England, but in truth they were born in one of the hundreds of villages in the immediate vicinity.

Sometimes, family legends may obscure someone’s true origins such as focusing on a Native American ancestry claim that’s unsubstantiated. Obituaries can be helpful documents. But it’s important to remember that these are not primary records. Instead, they rely on fallible human memory. Your research will benefit if you treat obituaries as a reference, and then work to verify each data point in the document.

Strategies for tracking down obituaries

Finding obituaries isn’t always easy. It depends upon where and when your ancestor died, as well as their status, profession, and even religious affiliations in their community. What follows are some helpful resources to begin your search.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers Database: The ProQuest database has digitized the archives of large newspapers such as The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, and papers of similar caliber. Your local or state library may offer access to this database. You’ll have the best luck if your ancestors lived in an urban area and were affluent or prominent in some way, as these newspapers typically charged a fee to run death notices.

Chronicling America: Chronicling America is a project of the National Endowment of the Humanities and the Library of Congress to digitize more than 7 million small-town American newspapers. Editions of newspapers are constantly being added. The U.S. Newspaper Directory is particularly helpful.

Ethnic NewsWatch: Ethnic newspapers may have obituaries for specific community members not featured in general publications. If your ancestor died after 1990, Ethnic NewsWatch offers a searchable database. Ethnic Newswatch: History covers from 1958 – 1989. Access to these databases may be available at your local library or through your state library system.

Individual newspaper databases: In some cases, newspapers and publications have chosen to digitize their own collections. For example, the Times of London has made their archives from 1785 – 2008 available online. Check to see if area newspapers have handled their own digitization efforts.

Subscription sites: Many subscription products offer access to collections of obituaries. One of the most extensive is GenealogyBank, which offers “modern” obituaries from the 1970s and historic American ones dating from the 1690s. and similar programs also have access to these documents.

Other resources: If your online searches are turning up dry in specialized databases, there are a few more directions that you can take. One is to search the Google News Archive, which digitized a large number of newspapers before abandoning the project. Another is to search state and county Death Indexes and obituary indexes. Finally, consider visiting the local library or town hall where your ancestor resided. Their obituary may be available on microfiche or through a locally searchable database.

Do you need assistance finding obituaries or other death records in your genealogical research? Contact us today at Price & Associates to arrange for a personalized consultation to discuss your project and how our experienced team of genealogists can help.