You probably know people who are avid obituary readers. They regularly scan their local papers, looking for people they know. While reading about other people’s deaths might strike you as an unusual hobby, the truth is that every family researcher should become an avid obituary reader. The reason is simple: obituaries are potentially the most valuable record you can use to discover information about your family.
Obituaries come in many forms. In the early 1800s, newspapers sometimes included death notices, which were usually just a couple of lines long. These death notices increased in length and in number over the next few decades so that by the middle of the 19th century, newspapers were publishing the longer, more descriptive obituaries that we are accustomed to seeing today. Your ancestors’ obituaries were most likely printed in the local newspaper of the town where they died, or they may have been printed in the newspaper of the town where they grew up. Don’t forget that obituaries aren’t exclusive to newspapers. You may find some printed in other places, such as local histories or funeral programs. Not all of your ancestors may have had an obituary, but these records are worth looking for. If you do find one, it can be like striking gold.
Finding Information in Obituaries
There’s no template for what information is included in an obituary. Some obituaries are short and sparse while others are teeming with information. Here are some of the most common types of information you can find in an obituary:
Death information. Since obituaries are a type of death record, they almost always include the death date and place. Often, they will tell the cause of death as well.
Names of family members. Most obituaries list the names of immediate family members and may also list several names of extended family members. Such information gives a unique snapshot of the family and their relationships.
Although only a few paragraphs long, my grandfather’s obituary is packed with family names. It gives the names of his parents and wife and then includes many other family members:
“Survived by his children: Burdell (Jayne) Mulford, Fruit Heights; Carol (Don) Albrecht, Bryan, Texas; Mark (deceased) Tamara Mulford, Santa Clara; Deborah (Randy) Crowther, Hyde Park; 14 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; sister and brother: Wyla (Lloyd, deceased) Rymer, American Fork; Jim (Julie) Mulford, West Valley City. Preceded in death by a brother, Ward; three sisters: Zelma, LaDellan and Martha Mulford.”
Counting these names plus the names of his parents and wife, that adds up to 19 names! What other record can you find with so many family names all in one place?
Other dates and places. Obituaries might contain other vital information that you need to complete your family charts. For example, they might give dates and places for a birth or a marriage.
Insights into your ancestor’s life. Many obituaries will include tidbits about your ancestors, such as where they worked, what their hobbies were, or what things were most important to them. Sometimes obituaries will give you insights into a person’s personality, such as this one for Mary Alice Mullaney (nicknamed “Pink”):
“We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments. . . . Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don’t get lost. . . . Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot.”
Wouldn’t you love to locate a record with fun insights like this about your ancestor?
Clues to other records. One of the best things obituaries can do is direct you to other records. An obituary might say that your ancestor served in a war, which would signal to you to check military records for more information. Perhaps an obituary will say where your ancestor attended church or which society she belonged to. This would prompt you to search the organization’s records to find even more information.
Remember that as with any record, obituaries can have inaccuracies. Sometimes names and dates can be incorrect, particularly for events that took place a long time before the obituary was written.
Accessing Obituaries on FamilySearch
Are you ready to start the search for your ancestors’ obituaries? If so, begin with FamilySearch’s extensive collections. FamilySearch has 37 million obituaries in 32 different collections. Many of these records became available through a partnership with GenealogyBank (see the announcement here). These records often have an index available at FamilySearch for free but may require payment to GenealogyBank to see the actual record. The partnership is ongoing and will eventually lead to over 1 billion obituaries indexed. When searching these collections, you may see a note stating that many of the records were indexed by a computer. This means the likelihood of errors is greater. If you do encounter an error, follow the directions on the screen to report it. Search the GenealogyBank collection here.
FamilySearch offers several other ways to find your ancestors’ obituaries. The first is using the Records page. Under the Find a Collection heading, type obituary into the box. Then choose which collection to search, and enter your ancestor’s name. The second way to search is using the FamilySearch Catalog. The catalog allows you to search by locality to see what obituaries are available. Some of these records might be digitized but not indexed, which means they are not searchable in any other area of FamilySearch. The third way to search is using the FamilySearch Obituary page. Here you can search the collections for your ancestors or use the tools available to create, preserve, and share obituaries.
Searching for Obituaries in Other Places
In addition to FamilySearch, consider using these other great resources when looking for obituaries:
- Ancestry. Drawing from hundreds of newspapers, Ancestry has an obituary collection that covers the years 1930 to the present.
- Chronicling America. The Library of Congress has created a database of old newspapers that covers the years 1789 to 1943. The project, named Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, offers a variety of interesting tools relating to newspapers and obituaries.
- Elephind. A free and growing newspaper database, Elephind includes obituaries and more.
Source: New on FamilySearch