02 March 2012


An obituary can yield the mother lode of information. It can also be a complete disappointment. Things to keep in mind when looking for that elusive obituary:
1) It may not exist. Not everyone had an obituary. It doesn't mean you shouldn't look but don't pin all your hopes on it.
2) It may not exist now. Tornadoes, floods, fires,... any number of events could have happened between then and now.
3) It may consist of only a few sentences.
Now that I've lowered your expectations... ;-)
After the jump are two, seemingly uninformative obituaries and tips on looking for obituaries.

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 GILLESPIE - On Thursday, August 24th, 1871, at the residence of 
 her son in Lebanon, Ohio, Mrs. Nancy Gillespie, aged 78 years.
 From The Dollar Times, Sept. 8, 1871
 Found on microfilm at the Germantown Library (Ohio)
 Collin Pioneer Buried
 McKINNEY, Texas, Sept. 9 -
 Mrs. Rufus W. Loftice died at her home near Melissa.
 She was one of the oldest pioneer citizens in Collin County.
 Funeral services were held at the Melissa Methodist Church and
 burial was in the Melissa Cemetery. She is survived by 
 seven children, twenty-six grandchildren and 
 three great-grandchildren and nine brothers.
 From the Dallas Morning News, Sept. 10, 1929
 Found at GenealogyBank.com
The first obituary is for my 4th great-grandmother. Unfortunately I still don't know her maiden name. What it does tell me is that she was living in the same county her husband died in 1864 and one county over from where she was at the time of the 1870 census. Based on census and death records I've narrowed down the six sons living at the time to the one I believe she was living with.
The second obituary leaves out one very important fact, the name of the deceased (Delitha Adeline Crockett Loftice, wife of my 2nd great-grand-uncle). While it leaves out the name of the deceased and the names of her family, except her husband, there are a few notable lessons.
1) If you're searching for a female ancestor don't just search her name, search her husband's name.
2) Search for the cemetery on Find A Grave or on Google (the cemetery may have its own website). I found over 30 other relatives also buried in the Melissa Cemetery.
3) Don't assume the obituary you found is the only one. It may have run a few days in a row and not been exactly the same every time. The obituary the day before the one above also does not include her name but it did have her birth date, birth place and a list (with just initials and surnames) of her children.
4) Since the family was somewhat prominent in the area I should look for a town or county history. Many towns would publish a history on an anniversary of its founding. It could include short bios or mentions of residents who have been there the longest or who were the first to the area.
A few more tips...
5) Did your ancestor live in a different area for much of their life? Check for an obituary there.
6) Did your ancestor's siblings live in a different area? Check for an obituary there. Do a search for the sibling. There may be a mention of them leaving to attend a funeral for their brother/sister in such-and-such city. Think of newspapers as the Facebook of their time. Everyone wanted to know what everyone else was up to.
For recent obituaries do an online search using Google or Mocavo. Some funeral homes post obituaries. A large number of newspapers use Legacy.com. They are available for free for a set amount of time after the initial publish date and can be sponsored after that. If they aren't sponsored they are pay per view. If the age of person isn't clear in the obituary preview check the Social Security Death Index (free on Legacy.com) for help. Note that each result gives a word count. Is the obit just a sentence longer than the preview or is it a lengthy write up?
For older obituaries, online newspapers and phone calls to local libraries are your best bets. If you know the city or county your ancestor died in look for a local library. Some libraries may have an obituary index like this one from the Public Libraries of Saginaw (Michigan). If they don't, give them a call. They usually just ask for a small donation to cover copies and postage.
Out of print newspapers are scattered all over the internet and on microfilm at different libraries. Cyndi's List has links to a lot of different sites to check. If money's tight check the contents of a subscription ($) site before signing up. Do they have papers in the state/county/city you're looking for? If they do check the dates they have available. If a website claims to have the largest newspaper collection or claims it covers the most counties/states it still won't be helpful to you if it has nothing from the town(s) you need.

NEW BOOK: Lisa Louise Cooke (Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast and Genealogy Gems podcast) has a book coming out soon on searching newspapers online, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers. If it's as informative as her podcasts it'll be worth every penny.

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  1. Talk about disappointing...here's the death notice for my 3rd great grandfather, John Jervis.

    The Crawford Journal, May 02, 1889
    Page 5, column 5

    JERVIS - In Rockdale township, April 18th, John Jervis. Deceased was an octogenarian

    1. Well you have a place and an age that would tell you if it's him or not.
      Trying to find the positive but yeah, it's a bummer :-/