This week started out with sad news as a friend, relative and fellow family historian passed away just a few days shy of her 98th birthday. She was a bright spirit and excellent researcher. As I think about this loss, I’ve thought about the importance of obituaries as a final record of someone’s life. Obituaries can be a treasure trove for genealogists. Let’s look.
We cannot assume that all the information in an obituary is accurate. Unintentional mistakes can be made in the writing, transcription, or printing. Obituaries are a wonderful source for clues to find more traditional records such as birth, marriage, and death records. If your relative was in the military, you may learn additional details about that aspect of their life.
The obituaries that I find the most interesting tell me more about their personal life such as a passion for sports or being at the lake or baking for the grandkids. To me these tidbits tell you information about the person’s life that you would not be able to find in the usual sources. Some obituaries provide more details regarding the cause of death. Perhaps it has a note about having cancer for a year or a special thank you for the staff of a particular hospital who cared for the loved one.
In addition to the usual birth, marriage, religious affiliation, death, and family members, look to see if there are clues about memberships in groups and societies. Were they a volunteer in their community or church? Where were they employed? Another piece of information that is included in older obituaries or funeral notices is a listing of out-of-town attendees. Usually these were relatives that had traveled from another town or state. In addition to helping you decipher relationships, this can be a clue as to the closeness of the family. A sibling who traveled from North Dakota to Nebraska for a funeral in the 1940s would suggest close ties.
In this blog post, there is a good reminder to look for more than one obituary for a person. I had a relative whose death date was noted as Oct 8th. The newspaper notices and the church record support that. However, recently I’ve discovered newspapers dated Oct 1st and Oct 2nd and they talk about the accident that killed him. It is a puzzle that we haven’t solved yet, but it does highlight the importance of looking in neighboring newspapers for accounts of a loved one’s death and obituary.
You can find obituaries in local newspapers, state and local libraries, paid sites such as Ancestry, and free options such as Chronicling America. This site has more ideas to find obituaries.
As you write your family story, remember to analyze the obituaries for those clues. We can learn more about what was important to that person and their family. Select an obituary and read it again to see what additional clues it contains.
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.