April 2nd, 2014

Hitting on Those Hard to Find Clues in Obituaries

Obituaries are one of the first resources that budding genealogists consult when setting out on the journey to discover their ancestral roots. Most however limit themselves to the actual printed matter and don’t glean all of the possible information they could, or spot the hidden clues that an obituary contains. There is much more to an obituary than merely finding the names of ancestors that are written within it; there are genealogical stones to be turned over that can reveal much more than might be indicated on the surface!

How to Spot Genealogy Clues
The name of the deceased and their survivors, as well as name places and dates are the obvious genealogical data that you can get from an obituary. Within the accompanying data however, there are genealogical clues that can lead you further in tracing your family tree. Let’s take an example of an obituary for a woman who died in El Paso, Texas. In addition to her personal data, the obituary also contains information such as; she was single, her parents founded and operated a small city hotel, she was a school counsellor, she was stationed at El Paso High School, the names of five surviving relatives, the name of a special friend, and where the funeral will take place.

Can you spot any of the clues that might lead you to other ancestors? One would be the hotel founded by her parents. You could check business and employment records to check for other family members that may have been involved in what was most likely a family business. You would also want to check census records and city directories for the names of those surviving relatives mentioned; most likely some will have a spouse, children, or even grandchildren that aren’t mentioned. You might also want to look into the name of the special friend. Who were they, and why were they special to the deceased?

Obituaries – Much More Than Just Death Notices
The first thing we associate with an obituary is the death of someone. Many people even call them death notices. They are much more than that however, as many provide a mini-biographical sketch of the individual. Some obituaries can even be as long as an entire newspaper page, revealing almost a complete life’s history. Most newspaper obituaries are not that long, in fact, sometimes there is no obituary for a person. In such a case, you can check other sections in the newspaper that may document the death.

You might find information on your ancestor in an article; especially if they’re death was accidental, a funeral notice, a thank you note from the family, or even in the legal section. Notices of claims against a deceased person’s estate are printed in local newspapers so that creditors may claim against the estate if they were owed money at the time of death. In the case of accidental death, or if a person died in suspicious circumstances, a coroner’s report or court records may exist.

Expand Your Search
If you know the death date of the ancestor you are researching, that is a good place to begin. Don’t limit yourself to that date though, as obituaries are normally printed at least a day or two after the event. Even after finding the obituary, expand your research to a week or two on either side of the death date. In old newspapers, especially in small communities, they would sometimes print the names of those who were sick, and occasionally print the street addresses as well.

Obituaries are a good genealogical resource with which to “get your feet wet.” Don’t let their simplicity fool you though, look for those hidden clues that may take you further in your quest for other ancestors. As always, keep in mind that obituaries are secondary sources of genealogical data, and you will have to find primary source data to confirm any information you glean from them.