We have a tendency as researchers to under appreciate the value of the documents or articles that we already have acquired, and spend our time looking for new “stuff.” There are so many “facts” and clues that can be retrieved from these artifacts, if we just pay attention. And they are just sitting there staring at us.
This article discusses 32 different pieces of information you can find in an obituary. Start by poring over the ones that you already have. I’ll bet you can find some info in them that you didn’t know that you had!
So without further adieu – here are an abundance of reasons why we should spend tons of time finding obituaries and discerning the clues buried (no pun intended) in them.
First let’s look at one example of a very simple obituary from my own family:
- Death date – this is the obvious one. But based on the publication date of the newspaper, sometimes the exact date is listed or the day of the week so you can calculate the date of death.
- Death location – this is not always entered in an obit, but in this case, it was.
- Names of siblings – this is in a word – HUGE! Up until I got the copy of this obituary, the sister, Mrs. S. Lust was not identified anywhere as a sister (even though other documents surmised that she was his sister), but now I knew that she was. And a new sister – Mrs. I Schudmack was identified in this obituary – more research – goody!
- Maiden name – We can assume (but need more evidence) that the maiden names of Mrs. Lust and Mrs. Schudmack was “Marks” since they are referenced as sisters of the deceased.
- Nativity – maybe this does not identify the exact place of birth – but at least where he immigrated from.
- Age – this is usually a part of an obit – even though it should never be construed as an exact age, even in years.
- Religion – because the funeral was being held at the B’nai B’rith Hall, one could assume (until further evidence is acquired) that the deceased was Jewish.
- Death information of others – did you notice that it says, “…brother of the “late” Louis Marks?” If we did not know that Louis was dead or when he died, we now know that he died before March 31, 1889 (which is Emil’s death date based on this article.)
Let’s look at another example obituary – this one is pert of a transcription of a newspaper obituary that was on Find a Grave:
- Cause of death
- Birth location – be careful with these; although this one states the actual location, “native of ” should not be construed as the actual birth location.
- Birth date
- Residences – this one states her most recent city as well as a few others. Helpful for finding someone in a prior census or city directory. Although this obit does not have it – on older obits you may find the language: “Philadelphia and Baltimore papers, please copy.” This provides clues as to the deceased’s prior residential cities.
- Names and residences of children and grandchildren – this is especially helpful when census records are not available. Where else are you going to find children’s names?
- Marriage “history” hints – Notice the reference to “step- daughters? That may imply that her husband had been married before. Helps to clarify whose children were whose.
- Names of children and grandchildren spouses – this is a fairly recent phenomenon in obituaries, where the name of the spouse of the children/grandchildren is entered. This can help for further cousin finding.
- Name of spouse
- Membership in lodges, associations and clubs
- Burial information – in this case she was cremated. Notice the Neptune Society reference which implies that her ashes may have been “buried” at sea.
Let’s look at another one; this one from 1975:
- Interment Information – name of cemetery. Please note that the name of the cemetery in the obit may be different from where the deceased is actually buried. The burial location could have been changed at the last minute. Or the remains may have been moved to another cemetery at a later date – to be buried with a loved one, or if the cemetery was closed down and all remains transferred.
- Mortuary – this is useful because mortuary records often have much more information than what is written in the obit. So a researcher can contact the mortuary for additional records.
- Military service – notice that the deceased served in World War 1. Also notice the flag on the obit that denotes a veteran. Not in this obit, but I have seen enlistment dates and locations mentioned in obituaries as well.
- Church membership – terrific information if one wants to contact the church for additional information
And here’s another one. This obit falls into the biography category, where the author pretty thoroughly discusses many life experiences of this deceased relative:
- Parents and grandparents names
- Schools attended
- College degrees and professional certifications
- Government service – a specialized piece of occupational information that may provide clues for additional research
- Sports – what the deceased participated in and who they rooted for
- Picture of the deceased
OK – let’s try one more!
- Unions – did they belong to a union? If so, maybe union records can become an additional set of records to search for additional info.
- Awards – whether occupational or otherwise, adds depth to the deceased’s‘ life story.
I am sure that one can find other obituaries that have additional information, but these are the more common ones.
You can search for obituaries in newspapers of course. A list of over 20,000 links to free online collections can be found at Newspaper Links
There also is an abundance of Obituary Indexes that have been created. Links to over 1,000 of these indexes (some including actual newspaper images), can be found on the Obituaries page.
What interesting (and helpful) things have you found in an obituary?