Family History Detective: 3 Pro Tactics for Finding & Using Obituaries

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The similarities between family historians and detectives run deep. Just as detectives rely on sound information to break a case, genealogists must be able to find and interpret clues to make meaning of the past. Obituaries often provide the leads that help unlock secrets and open up new lines of discovery.

We all know obituaries typically contain birth, marriage, and death dates as well as parent, spouse, and child names. Beyond this basic information, details within death notices can present new avenues of genealogical exploration that can lead to a richer family history. Obituaries often provide “aha” moments that allow you to piece together ancestors’ lives and solve long-standing family mysteries.

To help you sleuth out details of your family history, we sought obituary search tactics from prominent genealogists. Read on to discover advice that can spur big breakthroughs in family history cases that have gone cold. Then begin an obituary search within FamilySearch collections such as Find A Grave and BillionGraves.

Pro Obituary Search Tactic #1: Use Obituaries as Stepping Stones to Richer Family Histories

Joshua Taylor

You never know what you’ll discover while searching your family history. Just when the trail of clues seems to have dried up, new information can break open a genealogical case and cause a rush of excitement.

Joshua Taylor, a genealogist on the popular PBS program Genealogy Roadshow, had such an experience. “One of the first ancestors I ever traced, John Washington Allison, was someone whom I had ‘closed the book on’ (so to speak) when it came to research,” says Joshua.

“Based on vital records, census, and other records,” Joshua continues, “I thought I had his life fairly documented between Ohio and Iowa. It wasn’t until I discovered his obituary that I learned he was a sheriff for a brief time during his life, and spent time in Colorado during the Civil War as part of a new business venture. I am literally still uncovering his few years in Colorado.”

“The obituary is a stepping stone to so many other clues,” Joshua says. “Look beyond the names and residences and into the associations and organizations the individual might be involved in. These organizations can lead to amazing offline resources that can provide all sorts of details you will not find on a standard census or vital record.”

For example, Joshua says, “If someone is a member of a veteran’s organization, like the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), you have a clue about their involvement during the Civil War that can lead to some fantastic finds in local and state GAR records.”

In addition to providing information about a person’s service, GAR records include information such as residence at the time of enlistment that can help you find the soldier’s family in census, land, and church records. With these new places to take your search, you never know what you might find.

Begin an obituary search using FamilySearch’s BillionGraves Index. Use information you find in death notices to uncover clues about relatives and unravel family mysteries.

Pro Obituary Search Tactic #2: Follow Death Notices to Other News Archives

Diane Haddad

Obituaries themselves will not always be the only source of clues about family members, but that doesn’t mean a death notice can’t help you solve the mysteries of your ancestors’ lives.

Diane Haddad, Managing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, recommends using the obituary’s publication date to discover other news archives. “I’ve found it helpful to browse issues published around the date of death,” she says, “not just the death announcements, but also society and local news sections, which may report an illness or accident.”

This tactic helped Diane piece together more information about her own family history. “Looking at Cincinnati papers published around the date of my third-great-grandfather Louis’s death, I found a Cincinnati Post article, dated April 21, 1908, about a local baseball league in which his son Adolph played. The article stated that that Adolph was to miss a game due to his father’s death.”

Taking the extra step to explore news archives around the time of a relative’s death can help you to discover more comprehensive accounts of family histories, potentially yielding important facts about relatives you may have otherwise missed.

You can do an obituary search using FamilySearch’s Find A Grave Index. Get started filling in the gaps of relatives’ lives and making connections within your family tree.

Pro Obituary Search Tactic #3: Discover Details in Sources Beyond Newspapers

Thomas MacEntee

While newspapers are usually the first option for an obituary search, GeneaBloggers founder Thomas MacEntee notes the benefit of expanding your search beyond these publications.

“Besides newspapers,” Thomas says, “check supplemental publications from organizations where the deceased was a member. If your ancestor belonged to a group like the Masons or Odd Fellows, a more detailed obituary may appear in the organization’s publications. Women who volunteered with a church or synagogue may have a detailed obituary in organization publications.”

“Don’t forget professional journals,” Thomas emphasizes. “The local or state medical association, dental association, lawyers’ bar, or another organization would have lengthy obituaries for members outlining their education and professional careers.”

Finding death notices outside of newspapers can provide a more detailed account of your relatives’ lives and interests. This new information can help you fill knowledge gaps or clear up misunderstandings from previous research. As every good detective, and family historian, knows, discovering minor details can lead to major breakthroughs.

Start an obituary search using FamilySearch’s BillionGraves Index. The details you discover in death notices can help you to compile richer family histories.

Get to Know Your Ancestors Today

Start illuminating the lives of family members past and present with the help of obituaries. In addition to using FamilySearch’s Find A Grave and BillionGraves collections, do an obituary search at our general search page for access to tens of millions of death notices (and billions of other records). When you incorporate obituaries into your detective work, you can crack even the toughest ancestry mysteries!

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