25    Mar 20093 comments

Obituaries: Clues from beyond, Part 1

How can we find more information about our ancestors?

An excellent method to locate more details is to find a published death notice or obituary for a relative which may list spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings and more. Out-of-area relatives may be identified with places of residence.

What's an obituary (called an "obit")?

Obituaries are short biographies - a memorial to a deceased person's life. The information contained may provide additional information by following the clues. Generally, families provide basic information to a newspaper which generates the written notice. If the deceased person is a prominent community member, there may be much more.

In many large cities, a short death notice is what you will find, listing minimum details, unless the deceased was a famous person. Short death notices are submitted to newspapers by funeral homes and are sometimes considered a free community service. Longer obituaries with photos are paid for by the family. Each publication has its own guidelines for obituaries and death notice.


Let's use this 1912 New York Times obit as an example.

Click to view photo in full size

NAME: The first name, middle initial and last name of the deceased. John Henry Ehrhorn

AGE: The deceased's age will generally follow the name - and provide clues to the birth year for further research. Sometimes the actual date of birth is included. Of course, the obit's writer assumes he or she has the correct information. However, assumptions are dangerous and checking other documents may be necessary. 60 years old, born 1841

ADDRESS: The deceased's complete address may appear or only the city and/or state. 444 W. 24th Street. New York

CAUSE OF DEATH: This may be included and is helpful for a family health tree. Heart disease.

EULOGY: The writer may add descriptions of the deceased's life, major events, accomplishments, etc.

PLACE OF BIRTH: Where the person was born, if they immigrated and when. Hamburg, Germany 1841.

PLACE OF DEATH: Did they die at home, in a hospital or in a nursing home? Was that place in the town of residence or in a different location? At his residence.

SERVICE: The obituary will include the name of the funeral home, the address, time of service, cemetery name. The funeral home may have even more details - from comments made by family members and recorded in the file - if the researcher can contact the home for more information.

OCCUPATION: Researchers may find the name of the deceased's business, professional qualifications, length of time in the location, university graduation and more. Retired cigar manufacturer, was in business for 40 years, since 2872.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: This may include the deceased's local affiliations as a volunteer, membership in a church or synagogue, etc.), business and community organizations, etc. Feffler Lodge, St. Luke's Hospital, Masons.

HOBBIES: This may also include clubs, memberships, organizations and other accomplishments.

MILITARY SERVICE: This may include dates, branch of service, number of years served, honors and other details.

MARRIAGE: The spouse's name (still living or deceased), the date and place of marriage, the maiden name, birthplace or more details. Doesn't say, likely she died before.

SURVIVORS: This section will list the names of survivors, including parents, children, grandchildren, step-children, brothers, sisters, cousins and others. This is useful as it may indicate non-local relatives and where they live. Three sons: Henry (a Post Office superintendent at Station J) and Oscar (a lawyer at 15 William St.), third son not named.

RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION: This may include the name of the specific house of worship the deceased was affiliated with, and provide additional information..

PLACE AND SERVICE: This will include the funeral home, address, funeral time and place, a memorial service and where post-funeral memorial services will take place and when.

PALLBEARERS: The names and affiliations of these individuals may shed clues on additional relatives, business or community affiliations.

CONTRIBUTIONS AND OTHER MEMORIALS: A request for donations - in lieu of funeral flowers - to specific causes or organizations may add information on health issues, the deceased's interests and hobbies.

When I found the 1958 obituary of my great-grandfather's cousin Max Tollin, in Springfield, Massachusetts, I learned the names of his wife (and her maiden name), his children and their spouses, where other family members resided, his occupation (a builder and what he built), where he was born and died, where he was buried.

How did I find this wonderful clipping in the days before widespread Internet resources?

I knew the family had lived in Springfield since 1898 when Mendl (who become Max) arrived from Mogilev, Belarus. I called the Jewish funeral home there and found that the staff was very cooperative and sympathetic. They checked their dusty old records in storage, discovered a photocopy of the newspaper obit, photocopied it again and sent it to me by snail mail.

In a more recent obituary for great-uncle Abe's wife Helen, I learned where many long-lost cousins live today. Here's that section - I have replaced the names of living relatives with XXXX:

... She is survived by her children, XXX of Palm Coast, Fla., and her daughter and son-in-law, XXXX, of Springfield. She is also survived by her grandchildren, XXXX of Columbia, S.C., XXXX of Woodbridge, XXXX of Palm Coast, Fla., and XXXX of Manalapan; six great-grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews, all of whom she adored. ...

This record was very helpful in revealing where many cousins now live, information that might have been difficult to find (such as married names of females).

What are the components of this important resource, what online resources are available to us? The second in this series on obituaries will detail how to do this the old-fashioned way for resources not yet online. Also, each publication has its own guidelines for obits, but these are the most common elements.


Each site has varying resources. Some are index-only, some have images, some are free or staffed by volunteers, some are subscription-only. Check each site to determine which newspapers are in their database.

Cyndi's List Obituary Resources: Comprehensive list of resources.

SearchForAncestors.com: Interactive directory of free genealogy search engines.

Free Obituaries Online: Canadian resources and links.

Genealogy Resources: Extensive resources.

GenealogyBank.com: US newspaper names by state.

NewspaperObituaries.net: US state resources.

NewspaperArchive.com: Access to billions of obituaries back to 1771.

Newspaper Obituaries on the Web: Access databases of archived obituaries – 6 million free newspaper obituaries in the US.

ObituariesHelp.org: Many resources. Click the Genealogy tab to find more helpful resources on clues, forms to download and more.

Obituary Central: An obituary database for finding obituaries and performing cemetery searches.

Obituary Lookup Volunteers: Volunteers in many locations (US and International) may help your research.

Ancestry.com: Including its country websites (UK, Canada), Historic Newspapers Online, Obituary Collection. $$

The next post will offer help on finding obituaries not yet online.

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very informative. Well done!
  2. great info here. Thanks! i've been a bit confused as to the best way to do this, but this post really cleared some stuff up nicely. Thanks.
  3. I found your blog searching google for hobbie sites and came across your website. Its very interesting and I have been a fan of hobbies for the last 15 years. I even have my own blog dedicated 100% to hobbies! I look forward to reading more articles, and hope you would check out my blog as well. Thanks again. Cheers!

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