Over the last couple of weeks we’ve discussed several sources of information pertaining to an individual’s death. If you’ve been unsuccessful in your attempts to find either a death record or a burial record, then obituaries are another source that may provide you with a date of death for your ancestor. If your search has been fruitful, then the obituary may provide more information about your ancestor than either other source was able to offer. Either way, finding your ancestor’s obituary is the next logical step in your journey towards discovering your family tree.

About Obituaries

Obituaries are written to inform the community of the death of an individual and to announce the details regarding memorial services and funerals. Not everyone’s death is reported with an obituary. Sometimes a death notice, an announcement of a person’s passing that doesn’t contain any biographical information, is published instead. Other times there is no mention of an individual’s death in any publication at all.

Gladys Heck Obituary

This is the obituary for my great-grandmother, Gladys Charlotte Forney Heck.

Accessing Obituaries

The first step in accessing a relative’s obituary is to determine what publication may have printed it. Most often, obituaries were published in the town or region where the individual was living at the time he or she passed away. If the individual died at a location away from his or her home, then the obituary may have been published in either, or possibly both locations. In some instances the obituary may be published where the individual was a long-time resident or where many family members remain, even though he or she was no longer residing at that location at the time of death.

Once you’ve narrowed your search to one or two locations, you’ll need to determine what newspapers were local to the area during the time period you’re researching. There are several ways to accomplish this. If you live nearby, you can simply make a visit to the local library. They will likely have copies of all the historical newspapers published in the area, and the librarians there will gladly assist you in performing your search. You may even find your ancestor in a locally compiled index of obituaries.

If you are not able to visit the area in person, you may try your local library. There you will find one of several reference books or databases that list all periodicals published in the United States by geographical area. This will give you a short list of periodicals with which to begin your search.

Although a growing number of newspapers are being digitized and made available online, it is unlikely that you will find a copy of your ancestor’s obituary on the internet unless it was published recently. The best way to obtain a copy is to contact the public library local to the publication you are researching. Most libraries offer look-up services, where they will perform a search and send you the results for a small fee. However, if you are feeling lucky and want to search the available sources online, there are three main sites to try:

  •, a resource provided by NewsBank, Inc., contains an ever-growing collection of historical newspapers and modern obituaries. Access to the site requires a paid subscription, but you may be able to find a library that offers access for free.
  • maintains a smaller number of newspapers in their database, but still offers a variety of publications. As with, a paid subscription is required to access most of the information, however many libraries offer access to patrons for free.
  • Finally, you may try searching for the periodical or obituary in a search engine like Google. Though it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll find a digitized copy of your ancestor’s obituary this way, you may find an abstract or index created by another researcher that will help you narrow your search or give you clues about how to proceed.
What You’ll Find

When you finally locate your relative’s obituary, it’s difficult to say exactly what you might find. The particular information included in an obituary is largely up to the person who writes it. It will likely include an age and/or date of birth, a brief description of the individual’s life and profession, the names and/or number of family members who preceded the individual in death, the names and/or number of family members who are still living, and the date and place of memorial services and burial.

Sometimes more detailed information is included, such as major accomplishments, personal characteristics, or even a photograph. This is especially true for individuals who were prominent members of their communities. More detail may also be given about the services being held, including the names of pallbearers or mourners. Pay attention to this information when provided. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the names at this time, they may be valuable clues for future research.

This is an example of a death announcement. Note that it does not contain any biographical information

A Few Tips
  • Though obituaries are typically published within a few days of a person’s passing, when news of a death must travel a long distance, it’s more common to see obituaries published weeks or even months after the fact.
  • If you’re having trouble locating an obituary for your ancestor, remember that it’s possible that one simply doesn’t exist.


One response to “Kickstart Your Family Tree: Obituaries”

  1. basil berchekas je says:

    This is VERY informative!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *