Using Obituaries to Find Your Family

December 18, 2017  - by 
How obituaries can lead you to your family.

You probably know people who are avid obituary readers. They regularly scan their local papers, looking for people they know. While reading about other people’s deaths might strike you as an unusual hobby, the truth is that every family researcher should become an avid obituary reader. The reason is simple: obituaries are potentially the most valuable record you can use to discover information about your family.

Obituaries come in many forms. In the early 1800s, newspapers sometimes included death notices, which were usually just a couple of lines long. These death notices increased in length and in number over the next few decades so that by the middle of the 19th century, newspapers were publishing the longer, more descriptive obituaries that we are accustomed to seeing today. Your ancestors’ obituaries were most likely printed in the local newspaper of the town where they died, or they may have been printed in the newspaper of the town where they grew up.

Don’t forget that obituaries aren’t exclusive to newspapers. You may find some printed in other places, such as local histories or funeral programs. Not all of your ancestors may have had an obituary, but these records are worth looking for. If you do find one, it can be like striking gold.

Finding Information in Obituaries

There’s no template for what information is included in an obituary. Some obituaries are short and sparse while others are teeming with information. Here are some of the most common types of information you can find in an obituary:

  • How obituaries are one of the most useful genealogical records in family history work.

    An example of an obituary on FamilySearch

    Death information. Since obituaries are a type of death record, they almost always include the death date and place. Often, they will tell the cause of death as well.

  • Names of family members. Most obituaries list the names of immediate family members and may also list several names of extended family members. Such information gives a unique snapshot of the family and their relationships.

    Although only a few paragraphs long, my grandfather’s obituary is packed with family names. It gives the names of his parents and wife and then includes many other family members:

    “Survived by his children: Burdell (Jayne) Mulford, Fruit Heights; Carol (Don) Albrecht, Bryan, Texas; Mark (deceased) Tamara Mulford, Santa Clara; Deborah (Randy) Crowther, Hyde Park; 14 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; sister and brother: Wyla (Lloyd, deceased) Rymer, American Fork; Jim (Julie) Mulford, West Valley City. Preceded in death by a brother, Ward; three sisters: Zelma, LaDellan and Martha Mulford.”

    Counting these names plus the names of his parents and wife, that adds up to 19 names! What other record can you find with so many family names all in one place?

  • Other dates and places. Obituaries might contain other vital information that you need to complete your family charts. For example, they might give dates and places for a birth or a marriage.

  • Insights into your ancestor’s life. Many obituaries will include tidbits about your ancestors, such as where they worked, what their hobbies were, or what things were most important to them. Sometimes obituaries will give you insights into a person’s personality, such as this one for Mary Alice Mullaney (nicknamed “Pink”):

    “We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments. . . . Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don’t get lost. . . . Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot.”

    Wouldn’t you love to locate a record with fun insights like this about your ancestor?

    How to use obituaries in your family history.

  • Clues to other records. One of the best things obituaries can do is direct you to other records. An obituary might say that your ancestor served in a war, which would signal to you to check military records for more information. Perhaps an obituary will say where your ancestor attended church or which society she belonged to. This would prompt you to search the organization’s records to find even more information.

Remember that as with any record, obituaries can have inaccuracies. Sometimes names and dates can be incorrect, particularly for events that took place a long time before the obituary was written.

Accessing Obituaries on FamilySearch

Are you ready to start the search for your ancestors’ obituaries? If so, begin with FamilySearch’s extensive collections.

FamilySearch’s obituary page makes it easy access to your ancestors’ obituaries. FamilySearch has 37 million obituaries in 32 different collections. Many of these records became available through a partnership with GenealogyBank (see the announcement here). These records often have an index available at FamilySearch for free but may require payment to GenealogyBank to see the actual record. The partnership is ongoing and will eventually lead to over 1 billion obituaries indexed. When searching these collections, you may see a note stating that many of the records were indexed by a computer. This means the likelihood of errors is greater. If you do encounter an error, follow the directions on the screen to report it. Search the GenealogyBank collection here.

How to find obituaries that link you to your family on FamilySearch.
FamilySearch offers several other ways to find your ancestors’ obituaries. The first is using the Records page. Under the Find a Collection heading, type obituary into the box. Then choose which collection to search, and enter your ancestor’s name.

The second way to search is using the FamilySearch Catalog. The catalog allows you to search by locality to see what obituaries are available. Some of these records might be digitized but not indexed, which means they are not searchable in any other area of FamilySearch.

The third way to search is using the FamilySearch Obituary page. Here you can search the collections for your ancestors or use the tools available to create, preserve, and share obituaries.

Searching for Obituaries in Other Places

In addition to FamilySearch, consider using these other great resources when looking for obituaries:

  1. Ancestry. Drawing from hundreds of newspapers, Ancestry has an obituary collection that covers the years 1930 to the present.
  2. Chronicling America. The Library of Congress has created a database of old newspapers that covers the years 1789 to 1943. The project, named Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, offers a variety of interesting tools relating to newspapers and obituaries.
  3. Elephind. A free and growing newspaper database, Elephind includes obituaries and more.

Visit FamilySearch’s obituary page for easy access to your ancestors’ obituaries.

 

Leslie Albrecht Huber

Leslie Albrecht Huber has written for dozens of magazines and journals on genealogy and other topics. She currently does communications consulting and contract work for nonprofit organizations. Leslie received a bachelor's degree in history from Brigham Young University and a Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has worked as a professional genealogist, helpingothers trace their families, and has spoken on genealogy and history topics to groups across the United States.

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Comments

  1. My favorite site for newspapers is fultonhistory.com. This site is a gold mine where I have found thousands of birth, marriage & death notices, obituaries and many other interesting tidbits about my ancestors in New York. The owner of the site is now digitizing newspapers from many other locations around the US & Canada as well. New images are expected to be uploaded Christmas Day.

  2. Go to RootsWeb, click on Obituary Daily times and volunteer to index obituaries from newspapers. What you index is what you will see if you are searching for a person’s death. Sometimes it is only first and last name, other times it will show name, nick name, age, town of birth, town of death or both, name of the newspaper where the obituary was published. If it is an obituary that has been published in the last ten years you may be able to find the complete obituary.

    1. I am Nehemiah Griffiths great grandson. You have Maryann Moore as his1st Wife but she is #2. Maryann Vaughan is first and she is mother Of Jonathan Vaughan (my grand father). Moore was mother of 4 girls. The birth date you have for moore (1845-1878) is actually for Maryann Vaughan. (1838-1886) vicvaughan78@gmail. com

      1. Vic, if this information is in FamilySearch’s Family Tree, I recommend fixing the information. If you would like information on how to do so, let me know!

  3. Hi. When I try to use this feature it keeps telling me “This obituary record hint was determined not a match.
    View your tree to discover more about your ancestors.” I can’t use it at all. The thing is several people on the list ARE a match. What’s going on?

  4. I have clicked so many times and still can’t find my ancestor that was stated “We have found your ancestors obituary” I get page not found, or a circle or returns after I am signed in. I have never found any other my ancestors using your email notices. I have 33 rolls of microfilms from the middle of Indiana and have gone through and posted them all on line for free.
    I am sure they are available someplace.
    searching on family search is crazy to me.

    1. are you a member of the church? i think you cant see the obits if you are not a member. i am trying to find an answer to that.

      1. Hi Camille! As mentioned in another response, all records (including obituaries) are available from many source providers. They each have contracts and limitations. Sometimes some items are not available unless they are viewed at a Family History center or library. I just came across a birth record yesterday that I cannot access (with an LDS account). It can only be accessed in a center or library. We all have to be patient until they reopen.

  5. whenever I try to log in I get sent in a circle of questions why can I not just request a password can I re apply open a new accountI I thought I knew my passwords and login account please help and advise me
    help and advice please

  6. Often I search to learn where a child or sibling might live. When listing relatives many obituaries may list both their name and residence, for example ” John J Smith of Columbus, Georgia”.
    This points me a location to search for John’s records.

    Often relatives who predecease this person are mentioned. This can help me recognize an earlier spouse or a child not listed on census records.

  7. I have old obits from18th and19th century. Should I save them? Is there a way to make them available to folks that may be looking for ancestors?

  8. i can see the obits but a friend of mine cant. she does not have an account for members. how can she see the obit if she is not a member of the church?

    1. Hi Camille! There are many providers of obituaries. Some of them have differing access levels. All of them are available in the Family History libraries and centers when they reopen again.

      1. this is online on family search i see the obits and she does not. her page just says images available and then it has a link to geneologybank.com and then you have to pay money. my site just shows the obit right on the familysearch.org page.

        1. Hi Camille! Thanks for mentioning GenealogyBank in this reply. There are many companies and resources that offer obituaries via FamilySearch. You are correct that there is a partnership with GenealogyBank. Your membership connected account will give you access to images and also you can sign up for direct partner access. All non membership connected accounts will need to utilize the free GenealogyBank resources in a family history center or library once they reopen.