The Final Goodbye - Obituary Search Tips
By Paula Hinkel
It's a reality that some people live quiet lives and never have their names in the paper until after they die. But for genealogists and family researchers, an obituary may provide tantalizing clues to living family members and long-forgotten cousins.
Before you start looking for an obituary, pull together what you know about this ancestor. Make notes of the birth and death dates for all the family members, not just the ancestor you're searching. Develop a timeline of the family. Include places as well as dates. If you have obituaries for any other family member, including brothers and sisters, review those to see who is listed as "preceded in death" and which siblings are listed as survivors. After you've organized your notes about your relative, it's time to start your active search.
The key to a successful obit search is to have correct information about your ancestor's death. The death certificate forms the foundation for a successful obituary lookup. You'll be tempted to skip this step and go directly to the search for an obituary. If you do, you'll probably cut the odds of finding an obituary in half. Here's why. Let's take Los Angeles for example.
* Los Angeles is BIG--over 4,000 square miles.
* There have been a LOT of funerals. Literally millions of people have died in LA
* Los Angeles has LOTS of places to look for obituaries.
* In the early years, people came to California for their health -- and then they died. Since in many cases they hadn't been here long enough to establish friendships, it was more important to notify the people "back home."
Here, we have a complication not found in many other areas. "In LA" could mean "in the city of Los Angeles" or "in one of the nearly 100 towns of Los Angeles County" or even "in one of the unincorporated areas of the County." It's human nature for people to "round up" or say they live in when talking to others who do not live in the area.
To make matters worse, many of the towns "in L. A." are not even in Los Angeles County. They could be one of the towns that border Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, or Ventura Counties. That certainly complicates things when looking for information on a family member!
Give yourself a fighting chance to find an obituary. If you obtain a death certificate, you will know for certain:
* the name of the town in which your relative resided
* the last known address
* the accurate date of death
Your next step is to figure out which newspaper might have carried an obituary, and then track down a microfilm or other copy of the newspaper. Make best friends with your local librarian and see if you can get a copy of the film or other source by Interlibrary loan. Or do a Google search using the name of the town and "public library." Contact the local genealogical society and request a lookup, or contact a volunteer in the area.
Following are some more creative ideas that you might try if you struck out in your search using more standard methods. Keep in mind that not everyone has an obituary. But don't give up until you exhaust these options.
* Was this a newsworthy death, a result of a traffic accident, crime, or other unusual circumstance? If so, the newspaper articles will be helpful in providing death information and will be fascinating reading. Read the articles for clues to related articles that may appear in later issues. For example, I found an obituary for a pedestrian killed by an automobile. The accident resulted in a coroner's inquest that was held later in the week.
* If you're doing your own microfilm readings, really scour the newspaper. While some newspapers list their obituaries in a specific column, others scatter obits throughout the pages. We've found obits listed in the sports section and among the legal notices. Death notices are often listed among the legal notices, in tiny typeface. But look throughout the newspaper to make sure you don't miss an obit.
* Obits are usually printed two to three days after the death date; however, I have seen them as recent as the death date and as late as nine days later. It's easy to advance a film reel a few more cranks while you're at the library. Don't limit your search.
* When I find an obituary, I make a copy of the front page of the newspaper, as well as grocery and merchandise advertisements that are printed in the same issue. I learn more about the time that my relative was living, and I find it interesting to put the death event in context with current world and local events.
* Many residents of Los Angeles lived somewhere else before moving to the Golden State. Look outside of LA for an obituary, if the individual lived for an extended period of time in another city or state. Obituaries for Los Angeles residents who lived in other parts of the United States -- particularly in small and medium sized communities -- are often found in these other newspapers.
* Church newsletters sometimes include the text of obituaries. If the local church does not have a copy, you may be able to contact church regional or district headquarters, which often maintain files of congregational newsletters.
* The LDS Family History Centers maintain a number of films on church records from various denominations. I rented films from the church from my childhood and found very detailed records. Not only did they have the text of obituaries, they also recorded what food was served at the after-service meal and which ladies of the church helped to serve the meal.
* Some cemeteries maintain obituaries of the residents of that cemetery. Inquire to see if you can obtain records from the cemetery or funeral director. A Lot Card can contain information on the individuals buried in a plot. You might be able to find out who bought the plot, and obtain current contact information for the family, in addition to death and burial data. I obtained several obituaries from a cemetery where my family was buried in Iowa.
* Along the same line, some funeral directors maintain obituary files. Also, don't forget to look in the funeral memory book. In addition to giving you leads on relatives and friends of the decedent, many funeral homes will include a copy of the obituary in the guest book.
* Begging may yield a cherished copy of a yellowed, tattered obituary. Ask relatives and close family friends if they happened to keep a copy of an obituary. I was pleasantly surprised to find an obituary carefully tucked behind a framed photo of my dad.
* Refer to obituaries for other family members for hints on the ancestor you are tracking. I found the notation, "Mr. Family Member preceded her in death on July 31, 1941." This was great because I had no idea when Mr. Family member died. I locate siblings' obits to find out the married names of sisters, which of the family members are already deceased, and where the rest of the family is now residing.
* If the decedent was employed at the time of death, you may want to contact the Human Resources office at the place of employment. They may have put one in the personnel file.
* Membership in the Masons or Elks or other fraternal organization or community group may be another route to follow. If you can't find a telephone directory listing for the association or organization, call the local Chamber of Commerce. They usually maintain a contact file.
* Many genealogy volunteers are building obituary indexes (in some cases transcribing the obituaries) and placing them online on message boards. You may be surprised to find a family member's obituary listed. If you are searching a relatively uncommon name, go to Google and enter the name of your family member. Try various forms of the name, including initials, nicknames, with and without the middle name.
One last tip. When you do find your obituary, look for a notation that says " papers please copy." This is a very good hint that this person lived for a time in that other town. Check there for another copy of the obituary, too. Larger papers may edit out some of the content of the obituary, while smaller papers are more likely to print the notice in its entirety. Go after that second copy. You may learn something new.
Good luck on your search!
©Copyright Paula Hinkel.