• Genealogy & Newspapers: Obituaries

    One single record may tell you more about your ancestor than a death, marriage and birth certificate combined and that is their obituary.  Obituaries can provide information about your ancestor that cannot be found in civil and church records and that makes them one of the best sources of genealogical information available. Before death certificates were even required obituaries had already long existed.


    The Value of Obituaries to Genealogical Research

    Even when you have already obtained all of the official records for your ancestors, an obituary can help fill in the gaps between years. Obituaries frequently impart valuable information about events that happened in the years between birth, marriage, the census returns and death.

    For example, an obituary can identify children you may have missed. Often when we look at a timeline of our ancestor’s childbearing year’s we see that births occur in a pattern. Such is the case with my ancestors Peter Sinclair and Catherine Calder.

    Children of Peter Sinclair and Catherine Calder m. 1854:

    1. James Sinclair b. 1855
    2. Isabella (Bella) Sinclair b.1857
    3. Catherine Drever Sinclair b. 1859
    4. Richard Sinclair b.1861
    5. William Sinclair b.1862
    6. Jean Sinclair b.1867
    7. Peter Sinclair b.1870
    8. Robert Sinclair b.1874

    You can see by the example that from their first child to their fifth child there was two years between births. Then the pattern breaks with a five-year gap between the fifth and sixth child, a three-year gap between the sixth and seventh child and a four-year gap between the last two.

    Gaps like this indicate the possible loss of a child. If you find gaps such as this that lie between census years and no record of birth or death has been found, an obituary is the logical place to look.

    Your Ancestors Obituary

    Here is a quick look at some of the other information that can be found in an obituary.

    • Dates of birth, marriage and death
    • Place of birth, marriage and death
    • Name of parents and grandparents
    • Number of children and grandchildren
    • Names of children and grandchildren
    • Residences and Occupations
    • Memberships to clubs or societies
    • Religion and church attended
    • Military Service information
    • Cause of death

    Where to Find Obituaries for Your Family Tree

    When you think of obituaries, the primary resource that comes to mind is newspapers. That is certainly a logical conclusion, the next questions are where to find the newspapers and if you are researching from a distance how to access them.

    A great source for this information is online obituary indexes. Obituary indexes such as the Library of congress’s “Chronicling of America” provides searchable, free, online access to a huge database of newspapers from 1836 – 1922. If the newspaper you are looking for were not accessible online your next strategy would be to locate an obituary look-up or mailing list.

    Although newspapers are recognizably the main source of obituaries, they are only half the story. Obituaries and obituary indexes can also be found in published journals, such as the “Obituaries Index Prior to 1800 by Sir William Musgrave” an index to the obituaries of “memorable persons” of England, Scotland and Ireland.  This publication and others like it hold a treasure trove of ancestral information that may point out obituaries published in books, university papers, magazines and memoirs.  All great sources that get you closer to adding another generation to your family template.

    If you have any tips to share on researching obituaries or any questions about this wonderful source of ancestral information, join us on the Genealogy in General forum.


    Image Credit: Ramona Hartley

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