I've learned a lot about obituary research both from my own interest in cemeteries and gravestone art, and my professional experiences working in libraries. I can't say it's a huge part of my job as it is right now, but we do still receive requests from people digging through their family history who need that extra little bit of information. For example, I had someone call from out of state just last week, who was hoping to get the names of surviving children out of a couple of obituaries he requested.
If you've ever done this sort of research, or see yourself getting interested in it eventually, I thought of a few tips specific to obituary research that might adjust your expectations, tweak your tactics and hopefully, increase your chances of successfully finding what you need.
- There may not be an obituary. Don't assume that there will be, or you might be disappointed. If no one gave an obituary to the local paper, and your relative wasn't a high-profile resident or otherwise well-known figure, there could be nothing.
- Check and double check the information you do have. You really only need a name and a date of death, but with genealogy information, the more the merrier: birth date, names of family members, towns they lived in, etc. You can use each piece of information to cross-check and verify the other pieces. And when seeking an obituary sometimes means making yourself dizzy on microfilm, you want that date of death to be as accurate as possible.
- Research the area they were living in when they died. Is it a big city? Tiny town? Rural, suburban, urban? What other cities or towns surround it? Are there cemeteries in town, or elsewhere nearby? If you intend to enlist the help of a library, what libraries exist in the area? These details are going to help you find your resources: newspapers, archives, gravestones, etc. Of course, skipping to the library part is the most helpful shortcut. They know their area, the newspapers, how to access the obituaries, etc. Or at least, one hopes they do.
- Make a list of local papers you want to check. I would start with the smallest, most local, and widen out. So if your relative's hometown had a small local weekly paper, start there. Then try one that incorporates a few local towns. Then a metropolitan area. If you still haven't found it, then friend, you're probably not going to find it. Unless your information is off, and in that case you've just wasted a lot of time, and it's back to the drawing board for you.
- If the local newspaper has an online database or index that will search the obituaries, take advantage of it. That death date is only a guide, a rough estimate of when the obituary was published. If you can pin down the actual publication date (or the full obituary!) before you resign yourself to a microfilm reader, you'll save yourself even more trouble. If not, check issues up to a month after your relative's death date.
- Find out where the obituaries are located. Most newspapers have a guide, a table of contents, that tells you where their features are placed. Check the front page, or just inside on the second page. It will be someplace right in the beginning, and save you endless browsing.
Bonus: If you are fated to sit and stare while flashes of newspaper pages on film fly by, TAKE BREAKS. This goes double if you suffer from motion sickness like I do, because you will want to barf by the time you're finished. Get up, walk around, get some water, some air, and go back when you feel up to it.