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Obituaries: More Than Meets the Eye

by Kory L. Meyerink, AG
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With the emphasis in genealogy so often on official records such as death certificates, it's easy to overlook other sources of information about key life events. Kory Meyerink shows you how to use obituaries to supplement, and sometimes substitute for, what can be found in the official death record.

Quickie quiz:

  • 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 required?
  • 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 family historians.

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 years.

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
  • Residence
  • Spouse and children's names
  • Other survivors: siblings, aunts and uncles, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.
  • Cause of death
  • Occupation
  • 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.

Nontraditional Newspapers

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 their condolences.

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.

Conclusion

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 brick wall!


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Online Lesson: Newspaper Research — Beyond Obituaries

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