Obituaries are an invaluable genealogical resource, so they are often the first thing a family historian looks for in a newspaper. But finding an ancestor’s obituary can sometimes be tricky. So we’ve created an in-depth guide to help you find obituaries in the historical newspapers in our archives.
Why are obituaries important?
First, let’s talk
about why you’d want to look for an ancestor’s obituary in the first place.
Obituaries can tell you information that may be hard to find
through other sources, though the types of information published in obituaries
can vary widely. Many have basic information like the person’s name (sometimes including
maiden name for married women), age, birth date and place, and death date and
place. But others may also include nicknames, cause of death, spouse’s name,
children’s names, names of extended family members, employment history,
education, volunteer activities, religion, military service, personality, photos,
and more! All this information can be especially important if your ancestor
lived in a time before statewide vital recordkeeping.
Obituaries also provide clues to other types of records you
should look for. For instance, if the person’s obituary mentions military
service, you can begin looking for enlistment records or pension files. And if
the obituary indicates the person died in a different county than where they
lived (perhaps because they were at a hospital or staying with family), this information
could point you to the location of their death certificate.
Of course, it is important to keep in mind that the
information in obituaries may not always be accurate. The newspaper may have
gotten information wrong or misspelled names, or the surviving family members may
have misremembered facts. This means it is always important to find
corroborating records when possible; but still, obituaries are a great jumping
Will there be an obituary for my ancestor?
Before you start looking for an obituary, it’s important to
understand some historical context that may affect whether you will be able to
find an obituary for your ancestor.
First of all, although obituaries have been published in
newspapers since the 1600s, they only became common beginning in the early to
mid-1800s. So your earlier ancestors likely would not have had an obituary
published in newspapers.
In addition, not every person had an obituary written about
them. The better-known and more prominent a person was in a community, the more
likely they were to get an obituary. Plus, a well-known person would be more
likely to have a longer, more-detailed piece written about them after death,
while the average resident may only get a few lines.
On top of all that, small-towns papers were more likely than
large-city papers to publish obituaries about their residents. Populations of
big cities were too large for papers to write full obituaries for every
resident. Small-town papers, on the other hand, had space to write about more
of the residents.
What information do I
need before I start looking for an obituary?
Since the papers on Newspapers.com are all fully searchable,
you need less information to find a person’s obituary than in the past, when
you had to look through physical papers or microfilm. If you are willing to
spend time combing through search results, all you really need is the person’s
However, to make your search easier and faster, the best
information to know in addition to the person’s name is their date and place of
death. But other information is helpful as well, such as other locations where
the person lived, any nicknames or aliases they had, and names of their spouse
and close family members.
How do I start?
If you’re searching for your ancestor on Newspapers.com, one of the best first steps is to make sure you understand how to use our search, including the search filters. If you want to learn more about best practices for searching on our site, watch this tutorial video.
The next step is to
search for your ancestor’s name. It will probably be the rare case when you
type in your ancestor’s name and the first search result is their obituary. So
there are two ways to approach finding the obituary: start with a broad search
and then narrow your results, or start with a narrow search and broaden your
If you want to start broad (recommended if your ancestor had
a relatively unique or uncommon name), enter your ancestor’s name into our
search bar. Scroll through some of the search results to see if there are any
likely hits for your ancestor. If there aren’t, try adding the year of your
ancestor’s death. Again, skim the results to see if there are any hits. If there
still aren’t, try adding the state where your ancestor died. Continue adding
time, location, and other filters until you either find what you’re looking for
or exhaust the possibilities.
If your ancestor had a fairly
common name, starting narrow and going broad is likely a better approach. From
the search bar, type in your ancestor’s name, add the year of death, and the location
where they died. Then, if a match doesn’t show up in your search results,
gradually broaden or remove the filters to reveal more possible matches.
Keep in mind that while filters can be extremely helpful in
narrowing down your search results to a manageable amount, any time you use a
filter, you are excluding possible matches. Here are a few important things to
remember about using filters:
- While an obituary may have appeared in the newspaper as early as the day of the person’s death, many obituaries may not appear for a few days or even weeks. So don’t narrow your date filters too far.
- Searching papers in the location where your ancestor died is a good initial strategy, but remember that their obituary may have instead appeared in the location where they spent the majority of their life, or where they had living family members.
- Even if you think you know which newspaper the obituary is in, it’s often worth a shot to search other newspapers in the area. And if the town is near the state line, try searching nearby newspapers in the neighboring state. You can use our Newspapers Map to see which papers are available for any geographical area.
If your search returns too many results to sort through even
with filters, you can try using additional search terms such as “obituary,”
“death,” “died,” “dead,” “funeral,” “memorial,” “in remembrance,” etc.
I can’t find the
obituary. Any more tips?
If the tips above don’t lead you to the obituary, there are
some more advanced strategies you can try.
One is to try
searching for your ancestor using nicknames, alternative names, initials, and misspellings.
In older newspapers, men were often referred to by initials or abbreviations,
and women were often referred to by their husbands’ names (e.g., Mrs. John
Smith). If you’ve found other newspaper mentions of the ancestor you are trying
to find an obituary for, look at how the newspaper styled the name, and then try
a search using that same spelling. Noticing patterns like this can be a big help.
Another strategy is to search using
the names of a relative or two who would likely appear in the person’s obituary,
such as a spouse or child. The Newspapers.com search uses OCR (Optical
Character Recognition) to find matches. This means that a computer has tried to
identify the words on each page and produce a digital version to search. But
OCR, as accurate as it is, isn’t perfect, especially if the text on the page is
less clear for some reason. So if you search for an obituary using the name of
a close family member, it may turn up matches that the OCR wasn’t able to
identify the first time.
You can also try an advanced keyword search using wildcards
and Booleans. Wildcards are especially helpful if your ancestor has a name that
is commonly misspelled. And Booleans are helpful if you want to really focus
your search. Refer to this
blog post for more help on how to use wildcards and Booleans.
If you can’t find an obituary, you can also try searching
for other types of newspaper content related to your ancestor’s death. For
example, some families would print a “card of thanks” in the newspaper after
the funeral to thank the community for their condolences. You can also look for
legal notices such as those about the person’s estate and probate. And if the
person died in an accident, murder, or other unexpected manner, there may be a
newspaper article about the death rather than an obituary.
What do I do if I
STILL can’t find the obituary?
It may be the case that the newspaper with your ancestor’s obituary hasn’t been added to our archives yet. This is where our Save/Notify feature comes in handy. Located to the right of the search bar on your search results page, this feature allows you to save your searches so you can repeat them more easily in the future. And, even better, we will email you to let you know when new papers are added to our site that contain matches for your saved searches. You can learn more about this feature in our help center or in this blog post.
As mentioned earlier, OCR isn’t always perfect. So if you are certain there should be an obituary for your ancestor, but a keyword search on Newspapers.com isn’t bringing it up, try looking the old-fashioned way—by reading newspapers page by page.
Start by browsing in the newspaper located closest to where your ancestor died, beginning with the issue the day after their death. Then gradually expand the time period and location you are looking at. You’ll soon notice patterns that will help you look through the newspaper more quickly—such as that a newspaper published its obituaries on the same page of each issue, or that it published them on the same day each week. This method is obviously time consuming, but it may be worth it if you really want that obituary!
We hope this has been useful in helping you find your
ancestor’s obituary. If you have any tips we missed that you think might help
others, be sure to post them in the comments!
And get started finding your ancestors’ obituaries by
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