What is the Difference Between an Obituary, a Death Notice, an Obituary Index and a Death Index?

In 2018 and 2019, I expanded the resources that I have made available on The Ancestor Hunt website.

Besides free Online Historical Newspaper Links, I have added Obituary Indexes (which are found in the Obituaries), and Birth, Marriage, and Death Record Links (found in the BMD Links).

It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to lay down some definitions so there would be no confusion. There is a difference for example, between a Death Index and an Obituary Index. And although the words are used interchangeably, there is a difference between an Obituary and a Death Notice.

First is the difference between a newspaper Death Notice and a newspaper Obituary. They are often used interchangeably.

“According to the Milwaukee Public Library:”

Death Notice – a paid notice usually placed by the funeral home with information from family members.
Obituary – an article about a person written by a reporter from a variety of sources.

​Let’s look at two from a newspaper:

According to the Milwaukee Public Library definitions, the image at the top is a Death Notice, and the image at the bottom is designated as an Obituary.

I think most of us think of the image at the top as an Obituary also.

In other words, we use the terms interchangeably.  And that’s fine with me actually.

The next two definitions are a Death Index versus an Obituary Index.  In this case, we do NOT, under any circumstances, use the two terms interchangeably.

A Death Index, at a minimum, includes the name of the deceased and the ACTUAL Date of Death.

An Obituary Index on the other hand does not require an actual Date of Death, but it MUST have the name of the newspaper and at least the publication date of that newspaper, and hopefully the page number that the death notice/obituary resides on. With the publication info, you can hunt down the actual newspaper death notice or obituary.

I have seen many indexes that include the death date AND the Publication Date, so in that situation, the index can function as a Death Index AND an Obituary Index.

The tricky part and it happens often, is to see an Obituary Index and have the library or other institution designate it as a Death Index which it is not.

Let’s look at three examples:

​The first is a Death Index

So, above we have a death date but no newspaper publication info, hence it is a Death Index

The next image is an Obituary Index

So, above we have a publication date but no ACTUAL date of death info, hence it is an Obituary Index.

The danger in these types of indexes is that often there are no header labels, so we won’t know if the date is a publication date or an actual death date.

Below is a combo index, which has the Death Date and the Obituary Publication name and date.​

The reason why I am pointing all of this out is so that you do not use a Publication Date as the Death Date in your own family tree documentation.

The moral of the story is that if an institution labels the index as an Obituary Index, and there is no header, you must assume that the dates entered are publication dates, not death dates.

​I hope that this helps.

2 replies on “What is the Difference Between an Obituary, a Death Notice, an Obituary Index and a Death Index?”

When I transcribe obits and death notices, I title them with death, or obituary. I began doing this so I would know if there was history, of life events, or if it was just the vitals. This applies to the public stories on Ancestry, the notes for individuals on my websites are not titled but the newspaper and date of publication is cited.

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