Using Obituaries to Learn About Family History

by | 1 Dec 2020

"Obituaries

Lou Pearce obituary, The (Maysville, Ky.) Evening Bulletin, 3 April 1902, page 3, col. 3; digital image, Chronicling America.

One of the most helpful tools when beginning a search into your family history is the obituary. Obituaries, typically found in newspapers, report the death of people who have recently passed away. Even if you already know when and where your person died, seek out obituaries for additional information such as birthplace, burial location, occupation, religious affiliation, community activities, street address, and the names of friends and relatives. These details can help you learn a great deal about the people from your past.

Locate obituaries online

Begin your search for obituaries is in online digitized newspapers. If your local or state library system provides free access to library cardholders, the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database includes larges runs of newspapers for many American cities, including the New York TimesChicago TribuneLos Angeles TimesBoston GlobeAtlanta ConstitutionHartford CourantSan Francisco ChronicleNew York Tribune, and Washington Post. Visit the library website for any libraries to which you have access as a county or state resident and explore the list of databases to which they subscribe. The downside of big-city papers such as these, however, is that they often only run detailed obituaries for prominent people, and charge a fee for even the brief death notices which usually only include when the individual died, and perhaps the day and time of the funeral. If your family was not affluent or well-known, you may not have much luck.

Yes, you can find obituaries for every-day people

Small town newspapers, religious newspapers, and ethnic newspapers offer a much better chance of locating obituaries for every-day people. The Chronicling America website, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, offers online access to over 17 million digitized newspaper pages from across the United States that you can search for free. While on the site, check out the U.S. Newspaper Directory to determine what newspapers were being published in your time and place of interest, including newspaper titles, years of publication, and the libraries or other repositories that hold copies if it is not yet digitized. Check back frequently. Additional newspapers are added to the Chronicling America site on a regular basis.

More sources for obituaries online

Google uploaded several million digitized newspaper pages to their Google News Archive site before dropping their historic newspapers digitization project. The specialized search engine and other features they used to offer have been removed, but the digitized newspapers are still available online for free. Due to the removal of the specialized search tools and browser the papers can be hard to search. See Search Tips for Google News Archive for suggestions for locating obituaries and other newspapers in this collection.

A number of subscription websites offer paid online access to both recent and historical obituaries from a wide variety of newspapers. One of the largest is GenealogyBank which includes an archive of “recent” obituaries dating back to 1977, and historical newspapers back to 1690. Popular genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com also offer subscription-based access to online historical newspapers and obituaries. Many public libraries, private individuals, historical societies, and universities host online digitized newspaper collections specific to their locality. One excellent example of this is the Old New York State Historical Newspapers collection at Fulton History, which offers free, searchable access to digitized pages from thousands of newspapers published in New York State and elsewhere between 1722 and 2021.

Don’t overlook obituary indexes

Even if newspapers for your locality and time period of interest are not online, you may find that volunteers at the local library or genealogical society have created an index to obituaries from their areas. Such indexes will generally include the name of the deceased along with the date of death, plus the newspaper title and the date and page number on which the obituary appeared. With this information, you may be able to request a copy of the obituary from the library or other repository which holds the original or microfilmed copies of the newspaper. Explore the websites of state and local libraries to see if they have created an obituary index, such as this Newspaper Obituary Index for old Beaufort District, South Carolina. Alternatively, a Google search for [county name] and obituaries or “obituary index” may also turn up treasures such as these Allegheny County Vital Statistics Indexes of deaths, marriages, and births which appeared in area newspapers, compiled by volunteers of the RootsWeb Allegheny County, PA Mailing List. Look for indexes to obituaries that have been compiled into books through WorldCat, or online through the previously referenced sources of historical books, such as this index of Obituaries from the Kern Valley Sun Newspaper published by the Clan Diggers Genealogical Society of the Kern River Valley. Search JSTOR or PERSI for your name(s) of interest to find obituary indexes in historical and genealogical society periodicals.

Think outside the box

If normal newspaper searches don’t work, you may also be able to locate obituaries published in trade journals, or school or religious publications based on your ancestor’s occupation or affiliations. Trade journals exist for many types of professions, from doctors to farmers. Schools, particularly universities, may publish obituary records of their alumni, either in separate publications or in alumni newsletters. Religious institutions may include obituaries in their conference journals (or similar publication depending upon the denomination), especially if the individual was a minister or other church official. Look for these types of publications in online collections of digitized historical books such as HathiTrust or InternetArchive, or through library databases such as JSTOR, using search terms such as the individual’s name, or perhaps his surname and the name of his occupation or school.

If you are unable to locate an obituary despite your best efforts, then death certificates, tombstones, and other sources of death records may provide similar information.

©2021 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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