Search for Obituaries

Whenever you embark on a new family history project, it is often helpful to begin by searching for an obituary. This not only helps confirm the individual's date of death, but often provides extra family details that you may not have — the names of extended family members, place of birth, occupation, religious faith and/or place of worship, organization memberships, and any other particulars that people felt were important enough to mention in summing up the life of the deceased.

Biographies of soul singer James Brown repeatedly mention his being raised by his great-aunt Hansone Washington for a time, but offer few clues as to exactly how she was related. Was she a great-aunt on the mother's side or father's side? Was she an aunt or a great-aunt (the biographies don't agree)? Who were her parents? An online obituary for Mrs. Hansone Washington in the Augusta Chronicle, dated Saturday, June 18, 1977, provides some insight:

Mrs. Hansone Washington, 1029 Bennett Lane died Thursday in an Augusta hospital. Funeral arrangements will be announced by Blount Funeral Home. Survivors include two sisters, Mrs. Josephine Gilliam and Mrs. I Ganes; two brothers, Mansfield Scott and Willard Scott; and five sons, Stanley E. Figenson, Mike Jowery, Ella Figenson, William Glen, and Johney Washington. Friends may call at the residence or at Blount Funeral Home.

Armed with the names of her brothers and sisters from this obituary, you can identify the family of Hansone (“Handsome”) Scott in the 1910 census of Barnwell County, S.C., prior to her marriage to William Washington and move to Augusta, Georgia. Obituaries for other family members, including the father of James Brown, help clarify her relationship to the singer.

When searching for an obituary, be sure to investigate all likely newspapers. Many cities have more than one paper, and an obituary for a specific individual could appear in more than one town. A thorough search should include the city where the person died and any locations where they lived for many years or still have family. You never know which paper is going to have the most detailed obituary, or turn up the one important clue that is omitted from the rest. Check the papers for at least a week after the individual's death. Often a brief obituary or death notice will appear in the first day or two after the death and a longer, full obituary will follow a day or two later.

Obituaries of the past are often not as lengthy and detailed as more modern obituaries. Many of them are little more than a brief notice of the death and funeral arrangements. More recent obituaries are also much easier to locate online, while one from twenty or more years ago may require microfilm research or a request to the newspaper in which it was published. But for a genealogist some information is better than no information at all, so don't assume that obituaries are only useful for people who died within the past few decades.

Look Online

There are many sources for locating obituaries online, such as major historical databases, volunteer obituary transcription sites, and the website of the newspaper itself. Google Archive Search (http://news.google.com/archivesearch) provides an easy way to search more than 200 years of archived news content from individual publishers and news aggregators, making it a good place to begin your search. Both free and fee-based content is included in Archive Search. Search results available for a fee are clearly labeled as “pay-per-view” or list a specific fee to access the content. Links from Google take you directly to the website of the publisher or aggregator where the content is hosted. When there are more than just a handful of results, a useful timeline will appear in the left-hand navigation with links to help you drill down into search results by decade or year. None of this is content you can't find through searching directly on the publishers' websites, but Google's service makes it easy to search and navigate through multiple sources at once. If you end up with too many results for the individual's name, try adding search terms such as “obituary,” “funeral,” or “died” to help focus your results.

Searches for obituaries in Google Archive Search often yield results from the NewsBank service with a per-article access fee that varies by publisher. If you think you'll need to look at more than one or two articles or obituaries, you may get a better value through GenealogyBank (www.genealogybank.com). Their America's Obituaries collection contains more than 28 million obituaries from NewsBank, dating from 1977 to the present.

A variety of specialized search services can also help you locate an obituary online. The Obituary Daily Times (www.rootsweb.com/~obituary) offers a daily index of published obituaries compiled by volunteers and distributed freely via e-mail list. The entire database going back to about 1999 is also searchable online. The Obituary Daily Times does not index all published obituaries, just the ones selected to include by the volunteers. It also does not have the actual newspaper notices, just the name of the deceased, and the publication and date where the obituary appeared. With this information you can then request a copy of the obituary from the library or directly from the newspaper. ObitFinder (www.obitfinder.com) from Legacy.com links to online obituaries from U.S. and Canadian newspapers. Some require a fee to access. Obituary Central (www.obitcentral.com) organizes links by state and county to transcribed funeral notices and obituaries appearing on various genealogy websites going back to about 1998. It also links directly to search results for death notices on newspaper websites.

Subscription-based obituary and newspaper search sites such as ObitsArchive.com, NewspaperARCHIVE.com, and the National Obituary Archive (www.arrangeonline.com/obituary) can also be useful in locating obituaries. Many general genealogy subscription sites also get into the act; Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, and World Vital Records (www.worldvitalrecords.com), for example, all offer online obituary and/or historic newspaper collections.

Locate Newspaper Websites

Use your favorite search engine to locate newspapers published in the area where your ancestor lived or died. A search for the town or county name and newspaper will usually turn up what you need. If you know the newspaper's title, you can search for that directly. Once you find the newspaper's website, visit the Obituaries section to see how far back in time these go. Look for an Archives section as well, where the newspaper offers access to older material. Some newspapers leave obituaries online forever, some for a year, some for just a week or two. Some may charge for access to older articles and obituaries.

Look for a Library Website

The public library that serves the area in which your ancestor lived or died is often an excellent source for obituary and death notices. Many maintain obituary clipping files or, at the very least, have back issues of area newspapers available on microfilm. Many library websites even offer online indexes to obituary notices from their area. From there it often takes no more than an e-mail or quick letter to get a copy of the actual obituary; some librarians will even e-mail a digitized copy of the obituary. Many libraries don't charge for this service or request only minimal reimbursement for copying and postage. If you can't find anything on the website, contact the library via phone or e-mail to see how its staff handles such requests. See Chapter 8 for more about locating and using libraries in your genealogy research.

Utilize Your Local Library

Many libraries subscribe to a variety of helpful research databases for free use by their patrons. Subscriptions to databases such as NewsBank, America's GenealogyBank, ProQuest Obituaries, or Ancestry Library Edition can be useful for obituary searches. Contact your local or state library to see what databases are offered (most list them on their website) and whether you can connect from home with your library card number.

  1. Home
  2. Online Genealogy
  3. Dig Into Death Records
  4. Search for Obituaries
Visit other About.com sites: