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 off point.
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 name.
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 results.
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 searching Newspapers.com!