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Obituaries and Genealogy

Find out what genealogical information to look for when reading an obituary.

In this article, you will find:

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Obituaries and Genealogy

Notices of death vary greatly, whether in current newspapers or those published 200 years ago. There may be only a brief mention in a column of deaths (usually called “Death Listings”). There might also be a full obituary including age and place of residence, a summary of the deceased's life, career, church affiliation, lodge membership, and much more. Always, without exception, these should be sought. The name of the parents, where the deceased was born (providing the prior location of the family), when born, when and where died, and the places the deceased had lived—all might appear. This can serve as a pointer to other localities to search marriages of the deceased and the names of survivors—brothers, sisters, children, and others connected to the family may appear. The church where the funeral was held and the cemetery lead you to even more potential sources. Occupation, professional career, war service, special skills (weaving, making quilts), town offices held, and other such gems may help round out the details of your ancestor's life.

Checking Several Papers

Do not limit yourself to one newspaper. Determine which newspapers were in the area and examine them all. In the weekly publications, check at least three to four weeks after the date of death. Examine daily issues for at least a week later. Occasionally, the notice was not published for a significant time beyond the date of death. It is impractical, on a routine basis, to examine the newspapers for an extended period, but if it is important to your search and you have not been able to locate the notice, take the time. And if the person died in a new location, check the old location, too. News often drifted back several weeks later to the original hometown, resulting in a notice published on the death of one of their own.

After you have located the notice, do not stop. Look at the next two or three issues. In its rush to publish, the newspaper might at first have scanty details and enlarge upon them the following day or two. I have found this to be true often enough to warrant the search for at least a few days beyond. If the newspaper is a weekly, check the issue for the following week. In the issue of 6 December 1905 of the St. Lawrence Republican, a Nicholville, New York, newspaper, the obituary starts: “Hiram M. Rose whose death was mentioned in last week's issue …” (italics added). The subsequent notice tells that he was born in Vermont, came to New York as a boy, and gave his various residences during his life as well as where his mother and father died. It includes his three marriages, the year and to whom, and the children born of each. If you had stopped with the first notice, you would have missed this.

If the deceased died on 4 August 1871, do not assume that the newspaper of the same date would be too early. If you start searching with the following day, you may miss the notice. The newspapers were more flexible than present-day newspapers in their ability to add last-minute items, or that issue may have been late going to press.

Even a brief notice, such as the one that appeared in the New York Herald of Saturday June 26, 1852, can provide gems. The death of William E. Rose was reported, “after a short but severe illness,” aged 27 years, 1 month, and 7 days. Relatives and friends of the family and members of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 were invited to the funeral to take place from his late residence at 33 Forsythe Street.” This provides an age at death from which a birth can be calculated, a residence address so city directories can be checked for others of the surname at that address, possible land records if he owned the residence, and even the occupation, which can lead to union or guild records in connection with his work.

Other Unexpected Rewards in Obituaries

An immense value of obituaries is locating relatives who moved elsewhere. The list of survivors can include the brother who went west and the uncle who still lives in Boston. Others who traveled a distance (and might be related) may also be listed.

Tree Tips

Many newspapers charge a fee for a listing; therefore, death listings are not complete even in present times.

When you find the notice, try to get a photocopy (or a microprint if it is on microfilm). Note the date of the issue, full name of the newspaper, and the page and column of the notice.

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