January 8th, 2014

Learning the Language of Obituaries

Obituaries are a valuable genealogical resource. They are the reason I began this website as you may recall. They are basically a written notice of a person’s death, and can confirm not only the date and place of death, but a person’s date and place of birth. Additionally they can reveal information about:

  • Other relatives
  • Where they worked
  • Where they went to school
  • Where they lived
  • Where they may have immigrated from or to
  • Clubs and Organizations they may have been members of
  • Friends who may be able to provide additional information about them
  • Religious affiliation
  • Military service

Obituaries are found in newspapers, so you need to investigate every likely newspaper. Many cities boast more than one newspaper, and an obituary for someone could appear in an obituary for a neighbouring town or city as well. When you search for an obituary, you should include the name of the city where the individual died and any locations where they may have lived during the course of their life.

Often relatives will publish an obituary in a former place of residence so that old friends and relatives there may know of their passing. Some obituaries may have more information than others, so be sure to check them all. Keep your search to within a week or two of the death date, sometimes obituaries are delayed a bit before they are published, sometimes they are published within a day or two of the person’s death. Don’t get obituaries mixed up with death notices which only mentioned that the person is deceased, and contain very little info. If you come across a death notice, check the paper a couple of days later for the full obituary.

Modern obituaries are generally more detailed than those from the past, and are also easier to find online. If you are searching older obituaries, you may have to request a copy from the newspaper that published it. Keep in mind though, that it may well be worth the effort, as some obituaries contain a gold mine of genealogical data that could keep you going for months, even years in your genealogical research.

Be prepared to read between the lines in obituaries. Keep in mind that they are secondary sources of information normally provided by surviving family members. Those persons are not always close relatives, and may unwittingly provide wrong or inaccurate information. The greatest value of obituaries is that they can point you towards primary sources, and any information found within them should be verified by such.

If you wish to begin your research, we provide access to a nationwide database of Newspaper Obituaries that you can search by state. Keep in mind the points and strategies we’ve mentioned, and you’ll be finding your ancestors in no time!