As you research your family's history, newspaper obituary archives can provide a wealth of important information about your ancestors. If you're lucky, you may even find an obituary that offers clues about your ancestor's life and personality.
When an individual dies, newspapers often print obituaries to commemorate the person's life and announce their death to the public. The first obituaries were probably published in the 1500s, but these were mostly basic factual reports, containing information like the person's name, birth and death dates, and sometimes the cause of death.
In the late 1800s, obituaries became longer. They began to include short biographies of the deceased, along with poems, prayers, and sometimes photographs. These later obituaries often included information about the individual's parentage, making them a valuable research tool for genealogists.
Common Information in Obituaries
The best obituaries include a great deal of information about the individual, and they represent a gold mine for the genealogist. If you are fortunate, you may find an obituary that includes much of the following information:
- Full name
- Birth date, marriage date, and death date
- Names of spouse and children
- Names of parents and siblings
- Cause of death
- Career information
- Place of residence
- Hobbies and interests
Searching for an Obituary
You'll need some basic information to find an obituary for one of your ancestors. Since many newspaper archives are arranged only by date, you may be unable to search using only your relative's name. In order to find an obituary, it helps to know the following basic data about your ancestor:
- Last residence or death place
- Date of death
- First and last name
- Approximate date of birth or age at death
To find this information, you can perform a vital records search. If you know your ancestor's first and last name and approximate date of death, you can often find exact dates and places in death records.
How to Find Newspaper Obituary Archives
Once you know the basic information about your ancestor and his or her death, you can begin your search for an obituary. Depending on when you ancestor died and whether the paper has begun putting older obituaries on the Internet, you may even be able to conduct the search online.
General Sources for Obituaries
The following resources can be helpful in finding your ancestor's obituary. Not all obituaries are archived online, so don't give up if you don't find what you need. You may be able to continue your research with the local paper.
- Although it requires a subscription, Genealogy Bank has information from over 3,800 newspapers. This site has over 28 million obituaries from 1977 to present day, as well as some obituaries from older historical newspapers.
- The Obituary Daily Times from RootsWeb offers a totally free resource for finding your ancestor's obituary. With only your ancestor's name, you can find out death date, place of death, age of death, and the name of the local paper. This will allow you to contact the paper for a copy of the obituary. This is an especially helpful source for recent obituaries.
- DeathIndexes.com has a list of helpful resources for finding your ancestor's obituary.
- Another great source for obituaries is The Ancestor Hunt. This site has information about recent and older newspaper death notices.
- Cyndi's List also has a great compilation of obituaries resources for genealogists.
Obituaries by Faith
If you know your ancestor's religion, you may have an advantage when it comes to finding an obituary. Many churches and religious papers kept detailed records and obituaries for their members.
- If you have German ancestors who were members of the Amish or Mennonite church, you will almost certainly find a wealth of information at MennObits.
- For Methodist ancestors, you might find information in the Newspaper Archives for the Southern Christian Advocate and the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. These papers have obituaries dating back to 1837.
- If your ancestors were Quakers, you could find their obituaries using the American Friend Obituary Index. The index is available online, but you'll have to request a copy of the obituary.
- For members of the Evangelical Church, the Evangelical Messenger Obituary Index can be a great source for obituaries between 1890 and 1913.
Using Information from Obituaries
When you find information in newspaper obituary archives, it's a good idea to request a copy or print a hard copy of the notice. This will allow you to add the paper version to your genealogy files. In addition, you may want to have an electronic version to use with your genealogy software. Obituaries are an excellent primary source for genealogy and provide credibility for your research. Good luck!