29    Mar 20090 comments

Obituaries: Not everything’s online, Part 2

The first part of this obituary posting featured online resources for obituaries. However, not everything is online. So here's some information on finding these useful records the old-fashioned way. Sometimes you will need an online pointer to find an offline resource.

While an obituary can be key to solving a family mystery, not all obituaries are digitized or indexed online. While many are microfilmed, even more are hardcopies - either bound or sitting on shelves. So where can we find them? Taking a step back, how do we find where a certain person lived so we can search for a newspaper notice?

The first step is finding out where the person died.

In the US, and in some Canadian provinces, death records are searchable online. In the US, the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) provides data on place of death or where benefits were paid, indicating a survivor.

Look for addresses and phone numbers of the deceased and do the old-fashioned thing - write a real letter. Say that you are interested in researching the family and are trying to find an obituary for your relative. You may not hear from many people, but you just might hear from a person who knows the information you need.

I once sent out about 100 letters to an area around Detroit, Michigan, looking for a specific family from Mogilev, Belarus. Most never responded, but several did. One man said he wasn't part of the family I was looking for - as far as he knew - but he did know them and was happy to put us in touch. It only takes one letter that reaches the right person to find your missing branches.

Find out about local newspapers where your relative lived or died. Write a compelling letter to the editor. There might be information on that person in the paper's archive and if the letter is printed, readers might have more information. It is worth a try.

Other places to search:

- Newspapers
- University and public libraries
- Funeral homes
- Hospitals and nursing homes
- Houses of worship
- Coroner's office
- Historical or genealogical societies
- Local museums
- Local clubs and business organizations
- University alumni associations, or local high schools

Check the MyHeritage.com search engine for possibilities - some results will be for free resources, others for paid sites (some of those may be accessed for free at public libraries).

If you know for example, as I did, that a relative graduated from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, write to the alumni office. I did, and received an almost immediate response with information. Be prepared to wait, however, as the staff are usually busy with other tasks.

If you only know the town - but not the state or province - check online, for example, to find out all US states with a town of that name. If you know it is near a major city, that's an additional clue. Be aware that nursing homes or hospitals attract patients from other areas.

Local newspapers are excellent sources. Find the website, if there is one, or find the phone number in an online resources. See if there's an email address for death notices or obituaries. Be aware that each publication has its own guidelines: Options may include those that have indexed everything (easily retrievable), only recent announcements, may charge for copies of old notices, may offer subscription options. Over the years, I have found that long-distance phone calls are received rather sympathetically and staff members will ooften do a little extra to help.

University or public libraries generally hold local newspaper microfilms. They may be available with InterLibraryLoan, if they aren't available near you.

While you might be lucky in dealing with funeral homes, hospitals, etc. also realize that privacy laws may preclude providing any information. Genealogy requests are not high on institutional priority lists in any case. Some may require proof that you are related to the deceased.

Genealogical or historical societies, or local museums, may have information or the results of cemetery projects. They may also have archival records from defunct funeral homes or old cemetery registers. It is always worthwhile asking.

Local genealogical societies are accommodating in providing help to long-distance researchers. Society members may visit cemeteries and take photos of relevant gravestones.

Always offer to reimburse postage or copying expenses and also offer reciprocal assistance where you live. Always thank people who help you. Appreciation goes a long way in the genealogy community.

Good luck! I'd like to know if you've located obituaries for your family and where. What was the response to your emails or phone calls? Your experiences may help other readers.


Don't forget about city directories, many of which can be searched online.

And always be prepared to find clues to even more family history. While researching a posting, I found the Baltimore, Maryland City Directories.

I found a 1913 listing for shirtwaist manufacturer David Tollin, 129 Pennsylvania Avenue. He's also in the 1918 listing at 2802 Evergreen Terrace. In 1920, David is listed, as well as a Max Tollin (whom I don't know ... yet!) - with the same name as our Springfield, Massachusetts relative.

In the 1920 US Federal census for Maryland, David has a birth year of 1877 and having arrived in 1887, when he was 10. His World War I draft registration, is dated September 12, 1918, and he was living with wife Dora at Evergreen Terrace.

This may have solved a clue for another family branch. The Cleveland Tollin branch had first arrived in the US, according to a descendant, and lived in Philadelphia where a relative had a shirt manufacturing company. The new arrivals didn't like Philly, so the story goes, and went off to Cleveland where the wife's brother lived. I never found the Philly shirt manufacturer, but here one was in Baltimore, just a few railroad stations south.

The more we find, the more questions and the more clues remain to be solved.

Search for your ancestors:

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