Obituaries can be a great place to find all sorts of information about folks - both the living and the dearly departed. Most obits usually include a person’s birth and (obviously) death date, as well as perhaps the location for each of those events. Some obits include the names of current and former spouses, and even perhaps a maiden name. Usually the names of children are enumerated, and their respective spouses. Sometimes the female children will be named as Mrs. John Smith, but that can still come in helpful at time. Of course the real ‘score’ in an obituary is a life history, including parents, places lived, jobs held, military service, and the entire list of descendants - but those obituaries are few and far between, and never seem to be written about “my guy”.
However, no matter how much great information an obituary contains, it’s important to remember that very often they are full of mistakes. Obviously the person who knows the facts about his own life the best is the fellow who just passed away, and when its time to write his obituary, it’s a little too late to clarify any misinformation. But like any undocumented information, obituaries are at the very least, full of clues about your ancestors.
Still, its worth the effort to locate an obituary when you can, and, as always, my favorite place to start looking is online. Ancestry.com has quite an assortment of obituary indexes, as well as newspaper archives available, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have a subscription. So I’ve tried to dig up as many free sources as I can.
For more recent obituaries, one free index is hosted on RootsWeb - the Obituary Daily Times. Volunteers nationwide enter up to 2,500 obituaries per day, which are indexed and searchable, and hosted by Rootsweb.
Another couple of websites that I’ve been perusing a lot recently are ObitsArchive.com (NewsBank) and Legacy.com. You can search by name or by newspaper, and a snippet of the obituary will pop right up, if available. You can purchase a monthly subscription to ObitsArchive, or just pay $2.95 for each obituary. On Legacy.com, sometimes the entire obituary is available to view by clicking on “more”, and sometimes it will just link to information on how to purchase the obituary, but don’t go spending your money yet.
First off, you want to see which newspaper and date the obituary is for. With that information, you can go directly to that newspaper’s website to see if they have the obit available for free there. If that doesn’t work, you still have options. One is to contact the newspaper and ask them their policy for obtaining obituaries. It helps that you already have the person’s name and the date of publication of the obituary, and more than once, I’ve had an obituary show up the next day in my e-mail box.
Another site to try is Obituarieshelp.org. Its really a one-stop shopping type of website - everything you need to know about obituaries and where to find them. There is advice on how to word an obituary, how to write a eulogy, examples of death notices and even sample letters of condolence.
But of course what you’re looking for are the obits, and what they have in that regard is a state by state guide to newspapers’ online sites, that usually links directly to the obituaries section. These are often searchable, even without a subscription of any sort, and if you’re lucky, the obituary you’re looking for will pop right up.
Of course you can always search for newspapers with digital archives in the locale of your deceased. There are two website that I know of that list newspaper digitization projects: Icon and Ibiblio. Both are organized by country and then by state.
And of course, there are a few online subscription newspaper databases, such as Newspaper Archives, NewsBank, Small Town Papers, GenealogyBank, and probably another couple that I’ve forgotten (sorry ‘bout that). While all of these do require a subscription, most of them are available through World Vital Records, the Godfrey Memorial Library and/or Footnote.com. All three of these subscription websites are available free to patrons at any local LDS Family History Center.
Many particular groups (religious or ethnic) have obituary collections available online. For Quaker obituaries, Earlham University hosts the American Friend Obituary Index 1894-1960. The Odessa Collection includes obituaries of Germans from Russia (mostly from North and South Dakota newspapers). If there’s any chance your Methodist ancestors’ obituary may have appeared in the Southern Christian Advocate as early as 1837, or later in the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, an obituary index is available. Mennonite publications are indexed as early as 1864 at the Menn-Obits site.
One additional option for obtaining an obituary is through the kindness of strangers. If you have a complete name, a death date and location, and (if at all possible) the date the obit was published, you can often find a friendly volunteer at Obituary Lookups , or on the Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness website (www.raogk.org). Volunteers are organized by state and county. Not all RAOGK volunteers do obituary lookups, but they will state in their description just what they are willing to do. Anytime you request services from a volunteer, please don’t forget to reply with a thank you.
(Just in case you were wondering, every one of these obituary links has been entered into my toolbar, under the Resources tab, Obituaries.)