Obituaries: Content, Finding Copies & Search Tips

Obituaries and death notices are among the most sought-after documents by genealogists because they are generally rich in details. 

An obituary is often the first thing people read in the newspaper (or online) each day, and, for many, it will be the last thing written about their lives.

The earliest form of obituaries has been traced back to Rome. The daily papyrus newspaper, Acta Diurna, was distributed to the public and included all types of happenings of the day, including deaths of prominent individuals. 

George Washington’s obituary as it appeared in the New York Spectator, Dec. 25, 1799. 

In America, obituaries have been referred to as a “Bill of Mortality,” “Memorial Advertisements” (paid notices), and “Necrology.”

Obituaries were originally short, even for prominent Americans, because early U.S. newspapers had to use print blocks to set the type for the newspaper, which was very time-consuming and space was limited.

It wasn’t until 1886 when the linotype machines were first used in newspaper publishing.

Over time, obituaries in America became longer and told a more in-depth story about the deceased’s life. Obituaries caught reader’s attention because people genuinely cared about their friends and neighbors, soldiers off to war, public figures, and famous people.  

Longer obituaries were commonly published for Civil War soldiers, whether they died while fighting or years later as respected veterans.

Featured in Civil War obituaries was information about the deceased’s military service, whether Union or Confederate, especially major campaigns in which they participated and may have suffered injuries. Also, if they served under a prominent ranking military officer that was often included.  

Featured in this post is a list of the types of information you may discover in obituaries, sources where you can find obituaries, and helpful search tips and interesting facts about them. You may want to bookmark this page to use as a future reference in your genealogy toolbox.

Types of Details Provided

Obituary of John Latimer, WSU Libraries Digital Collections

In addition to providing information about where your relative died and when, there are so many other details that can be gleaned from obituaries.  

Even in John Latimer’s brief obituary you can discover considerable facts that can help with your genealogy research.

You can also undercover some interesting information about his life, including the fact that he came to Walla Walla, Montana, in 1863. Montana was not granted statehood until Nov. 8, 1889, so he was an early pioneer in that territory.

The following list includes examples of the types of biographical information that might be found in an obituary.

  • Photo of the deceased
  • Deceased’s full name, including well-known nickname
  • Birth date and place
  • Education and degrees earned
  • Marriage date (and maybe place)
  • Maiden name of spouse
  • Names of children living and deceased at time of death
  • Married names and spouses of children
  • Names of brothers and sisters
  • Names of parents
  • Names of grandchildren
  • In-laws, preceding death or surviving
  • Immigration year (if an immigrant)
  • Residence of deceased (sometimes the specific address)
  • Cause of death
  • Names of other relatives who may have attended funeral
  • Occupation and places worked
  • Community involvement
  • Military service (ranks, awards,, heroic deeds, participation in conflicts and key battles, injuries)
  • Hobbies, clubs and interests
  • Proudest accomplishments
  • Religious membership, contributions and societies
  • Burial place
  • Funeral date, time and place
  • Name of funeral home handling the affairs
  • Information about the person’s character (obituaries from the early 1800s often focused on the person’s virtues and moral character, and how they treated their spouse and other family members)
  • Where memorials were directed

Places to Search for Obituaries

Today, it is becoming easier to find obituaries because of digitized newspapers and obituary indexing projects. Below is a list of places you may discover an obituary. 

  • Ancestry.com. This is a subscription site. They have a U.S. Obituary Collection, 1930-2017 index. 
  • Family Bibles. Slipped inside the pages of family Bibles you will often find obituaries. 
  • FindAGrave.com. Many people now post photos or scanned images of obituaries on the site or transcribe obituaries and place the information in the biographical section of the memorials. 
  • FamilySearch partnership. A partnership between FamilySearch and GenealogyBank is providing a growing database of obituaries you can search. FamilySearch volunteers are indexing obituaries from GenealogyBank’s collections. These indexes (1815-2011) are organized by place and free at FamilySearch.org.
  • FamilySearch.org, has obituary images from other sources for several U.S. states.
  • Funeral homes and their websites. 
  • Genealogybank.com, a subscription site owned by NewsBank (7 day free trial). 
  • GenealogyBuff.com. Obituary collections for all of the states. 
  • Google News Archives. Begin with the newspaper list to browse directly to a specific newspaper in the Google News Archive. Then you can enter the date in the date box for your search. 
  • Legacy.com is a free website containing thousands of obituaries. 
  • Library of Congress’ free Chronicling America site. Use the Chronicling America US Newspaper Directory to identify papers published in the time and place your relative died. 
  • Local genealogical and historical societies. These organizations often have their own obituary transcription or archival projects. 
  • Local newspapers. Some newspapers have archived, microfilmed or digitized their papers. While others maintain clipping files for obituaries. 
  • MyHeritage. Index of Obituaries for the United States and Canada, 1900-2019, a subscription site. 
  • Mennonitische Rundschau. This is the oldest Mennonite periodical still published. 1930-2001 obituaries indexed. If you want a copy of the obituary, there is a fee. 
  • Newspapers.com, an Ancestry.com-owned subscription site. 
  • NewspaperARCHIVE.com. The largest historical newspaper database online. Free trial offered. 
  • Obitsarchive.com. Subscription service. A large collection of newspaper obituaries from the United States. 
  • Old books. In the past, it was not usual for people to paste poems, newspaper articles, and obituaries inside old books. Don’t toss out a book from a family estate without looking first inside. 
  • Photo albums. Family photo albums often contain copies of obituaries and funeral programs. 
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Available for free at subscribing libraries. 
  • Public libraries. Libraries, including those who are FamilySearch Affiliates, generally have staff interested in genealogy who are anxious to help you find obituaries in their collections or through other digital sources.
  • Rootsweb. Obituary Daily Times is a searchable index of published obituaries.
  • Scrapbooks. Keeping scrapbooks was once and continues to be a popular hobby. An old family scrapbook is a place many obituaries were kept. 
  • Social media. A contemporary new trend is for people to publish obituaries created by family members on social media, rather than putting them in a newspaper with declining subscribers. If a Facebook page is memorialized, it too may have the obituary prominently displayed. 
  • State Digital Newspaper Programs. Many states have free online digital newspaper collections.
  • USGenWeb Archives Project. Contains free obituary transcriptions and indexes by location. 

Search Tips and Obituary Tidbits

  • Obituaries normally appeared in newspapers within a few days of a person’s death. However, some local newspapers were published only weekly or twice a week, so it’s possible to find one weeks later. 
  • Obituaries were not always grouped together in older publications, so don’t forget to look through the entire paper.  
  • Obituaries were published in different sections of the paper, wherever they could be squeezed in. From a formal death notices column, to a feature on the front page about a prominent community member, to the classifieds section or in a small space under an advertisement. 
  • An obituary for an individual may have been published in several newspapers. So if the smaller local newspaper is not accessible (not digitized or doesn’t exist any longer), there may be the same obituary published in a larger nearby community paper. 
  • It was common for lengthy obituaries to continue into a separate column somewhere else on the page or on a different page entirely, so make sure you get the entire contents. 
  • Some newspapers published “remembrance” columns or “a moment in history” section in their papers. So you might even discover an obituary or death notice published 10, 15 or 20 years following their death. 
  • Families also paid for memorial tributes to be published in the papers, which were issued on an anniversary of their loved one’s death.  
  • Obituaries may reveal details about the cultural and religious practices of the period. Was there a wake? Was there a specific time of the day in which the service was held? 
  • Don’t stop with just the obituary. It was common practice in the mid to late 1800s into the 1970s for the obituary to be followed by a “Card of Thanks”. This was information provided to the newspaper by the family to thank the community for help and support offered during their loved one’s illness, time or death or time of grief. 
  • Prior to the time when funeral homes began preparing obituaries and submitting them to the newspapers for an advertising fee, obituaries were editorial articles written by a newspaper staff person after interviewing the family (or perhaps a friend or neighbor or physician), and gathering biographical facts about the deceased. 
  • It wasn’t until the last part of the 20th Century that families (sometimes with the assistance of the funeral director) would write the obituaries. These can sometimes reveal some interesting facts about family dynamics and love-hate relationships among relatives. If you were disowned or there was friction in the family, an immediate family member may not even be mentioned. 
  • A death notice is a short mention in the newspaper that would announce the death and perhaps publicize funeral arrangements. 
  • Obituaries were less common in large cities because there simply wasn’t enough room in those papers to include an obituary for everyone. So a death notice is all that you might find. 
  • Obituaries reflect different values and geographic nomenclatures. For instance, in the South and Midwest, the deceased has “went to eternal rest with the Lord” or “gone home.” In the Northeast, more blunt terms were used, such as “died” or “departed.”
  • Coined “death journalism,” during the late 1800s journalists would write obituaries that shared intimate details about the deceased’s cause of death. Some accounts would be considered extremely personal and morbid today. Why did they use this style – it sold papers. Here is an example of the obituary for Martin Bergen.

Martin Bergen (Oct. 25, 1871 – Jan. 19, 1900) was the son of Michael Bergen and Anna Delaney. He was an American Major League Baseball player with the Boston Beaneaters from 1896 to 1899. As catcher, he helped the Beaneaters win National League pennants in 1897 and 1898, and second-place finish in 1899.

Bergen suffered from apparent mental illness. By 1899, he complained of being poked and prodded and chased by unseen people, experienced hallucinations, and even heard voices during games. He had to be removed from a game due to odd behavior, and walked off from the team train during a trip to Boston. On Jan. 19, 1900, in North Brookfield, Mass., Martin Bergen killed his wife and two small children before committing suicide.

  • A person’s cause of death may be vague or even omitted if its sensitive in nature, for religious reasons, because of a privacy request, or simply because “it’s none of your business.” In these instances, you may see phrases in the obituary such as: “died of natural causes,” “died unexpectedly,” “died peacefully,” “died at home,” or “died surrounded by family.” 
  • In the early 1800s, the popular style of writing obituaries was as a sentimental poem. 
  • In the past, large newspapers would have dedicated obituary writers. But as they have downsized, such dedicated writers are becoming a thing of the past.
  • With the advancements in online technology, obituaries today can include videos, photos, art, and other digital media; as well as accept comments and messages of support for the family.

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