If you’ve read obituaries about your ancestors, you know they can provide a wealth of information. They may include biographical details, names of relatives, religious affiliation, and more. If you find an obituary for a specific person, the information within can fill in gaps, lead to other records, and help break down brick walls.
The earliest known obituaries were published Roman times. For centuries, obituaries were mainly for prominent people. But things began to change with the invention the printing press and the linotype machine as newspapers became widespread. During the United States Civil War, obituaries were a vital means of tracking both the living and dead. Over time, obituaries became more common and more detailed, evolving to the life sketches and tributes we often see today.
An obituary can contain key information that can connect you to your ancestors. It can, perhaps, even fill in gaps you didn't even know were there! FamilySearch's free online record collections contain hundreds of thousands of obituaries. Is your ancestor's obituary one of them?
Determine the Obituary's Key Information
When you are trying to find an obituary for a specific person, your chances of success improve if you have the following information:
- A death date or death date range. Sometimes you may have an exact death date from a death certificate or family record. But even if you don’t, you can usually estimate a death date range from other records. For example, if your ancestor appears with her husband in the 1851 England census, but her husband appears as a widower in the 1861 census, your ancestor most likely died between 1851 and 1861.
- A death place. Again, you might have this exact information, but even if you don’t, you can usually make a good estimate. What was the person’s last known residence according to church, government, or other records? Where do you find the person’s family after he or she died? Sites such as Online Searchable Death Indexes and Records can help you locate death information for an ancestor.
- For women, the surname at the time of death. If you’re looking for a female ancestor in a country where women usually changed their surnames at marriage, try to determine the woman’s surname at the time of death. For example, a woman named Vera Webb married a man surnamed Brantley. Then she married a second time to a man surnamed Stephens. She did not marry again. We would expect to find her obituary under the name of Vera Stephens.
- Family members. Particularly when you are researching a common name, information about known family members can help you determine if you have the right obituary.
Search for Obituaries Online
Online searching is simple and quick, so it’s a great place to start. Where can you find obituaries online?
- Try the FamilySearch Historical Records Collections. Filter the list by typing “obit” in the Filter by Collection Title box. That way, you get all titles with “Obituary” and “Obituaries.”
- Check FamilySearch partner sites such as Ancestry.com and findmypast.com.
- Visit cemetery sites such as Find a Grave and Billion Graves. Individual grave records may include obituaries added by users.
- Look at newspaper sites such as Genealogy Bank and Newspaper Archive. Google also has news archives. If you’re researching in Australia, try Trove. And don’t forget smaller newspaper sites, such as Halton News or New York State Historic Newspapers. These sites can be a goldmine for finding ancestors who lived in the newspaper’s publication area. You can locate sites such as these by searching online.
- The Chronicling America website, maintained by the United States Library of Congress, provides access to digitized newspapers from 1789 to 1963.
- The FamilySearch Research Wiki can help you locate obituary collections. For example, to find obituaries for Hungarian ancestors, search for “Hungary Obituaries.”
- Your public library website may have a family history or genealogy section that includes access to digital newspapers.
- Memorial sites such as Legacy.com host obituaries from newspapers; in addition, users can publish obituaries directly to the site.
What If I Don’t Find Anything Online?
We get so used to finding information online that it’s easy to forget how much information isn’t yet available there. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find an obituary right away. Here are some additional things to try:
- The Chronicling America website provides a directory of newspapers in the United States from 1690 until the present. This directory lists libraries and other repositories for newspapers that have not yet been digitized. You may be able to access a microfilm or even a physical copy of the newspaper you need.
- Consider uncommon sources. In her 2019 presentation at the BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy, Cara Jones suggested trying publications such as alumni magazines, church newsletters, professional employment publications, historical society publications, and more. The Periodical Source Index (PERSI), available on findmypast.com, can help you find these types of publications.
Example: Finding Vera May Webb’s Obituary
Let’s look at a simple example. Suppose I’m looking for an obituary for the Vera Webb mentioned above. Here’s the information I have about her:
- Vera was born about 1900 in Georgia, United States.
- Webb is her maiden surname.
- She married a man named Cleo Brantley.
- Later she married a man surnamed Stephens.
- She died 14 April 1983 in Georgia, United States.
Using this information, I decided to search Genealogy Bank:
And this is the result I see:
The result looks good, so I open the obituary and find that not only is it for the right woman, but it provides a detailed list of her children and siblings, including married surnames for the women. Where else can you find so much information about one family all in one place?
Next time you’re looking for more information about an ancestor or clues to help you break down brick walls, why not look for an obituary? It may have just the information you need.
To learn more about using obituaries to connect with your ancestors, read these FamilySearch blog articles:
- Using Obituaries to Find Your Family
- Valuable Genealogy Resource: Recent Obituaries Collection
- Truly Personal Obituaries
- Family History Detective: 3 Pro Tactics for Finding and Using Obituaries
The subject of this article and some of its material was taken from Cara Jones' class, “Obituaries: A Family History Goldmine ,” at the 2019 BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy.
The BYU Conference on Family History and Genealogy is held annually and offers classes for genealogists and others wanting to learn about their ancestors. Keep an eye on the BYU conference page for announcements about next year’s schedule and when registration opens.