Obits as Research Tools

One of the most helpful documents readily available to the amateur genealogical researcher, and often an underappreciated source of information in constructing a family tree, is the obituary. Basically a posthumous news article, obituaries report the recent death of a person, along with an account of the person’s life, and specifics about pending funeral arrangements or memorial services. But they can also be very useful in providing information about families, not just the deceased.

Two types of advertisements are related to obituaries. One, the Death Notice, is a paid announcement omitting most biographical details and may be printed as a legally required public notice. The other type, a paid Memorial Advertisement, is usually written by family members or friends, sometimes with assistance from a funeral home. Both types are usually run as classified ads.

Obituaries can be divided into two parts. The first part relates specific details about the life of the deceased; date and place of birth, date and place of their passing, dates or era of military service, place and date of attendance at educational institutions, and place and date of a marriage. The second part talks about the family of the deceased. It is in this second part of the obituary where information can be found that might otherwise go unknown. A surprising number of people researching their ancestors carefully study statements about the departed and implement only casual reading through the names of family members.

A listing of immediate next of kin in an obituary can provide an excellent platform for creating a family tree, often listing a female spouse’s maiden name and names taken in previous marriages. In addition, the names of parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, stepchildren, and their spouses, if applicable, are sometimes included encompassing two or three generations of a family. In more recent times, with more non-traditional and complex familial structures being created, obituaries may also include the names of “significant others”, same-sex partners, non-adopted children of a cohabitating partner, as well as significant companions and caregivers. Often family connections that were not revealed when a person was alive are presented in an obituary; the existence of an unknown sibling, the occurrence of a previous marriage. The names of relatives, location of birth, final resting place, method of disposition, occupation, religious affiliation, volunteer work, and other details of how a person lived and enjoyed their existence are but a few examples of the wealth of information that can help flesh out the details of a life that has ended.

Even the family’s request that donations, in lieu of flowers, be made to specific charities, organizations, or other entities that may have played an important role in, or provided an invaluable service to, the comfort and enjoyment of the deceased, may provide clues to background information that may be useful in filling out the branches of the family tree.

An important part of investigative procedure is to pay special attention to the details unearthed in researched documents. Obituaries require that same scrutiny. Not only do they provide facts about the deceased, but they can also provide excellent leads concerning family members, friends, and affiliations of the departed. To join and consolidate names and events found in even a couple of obituaries can prepare fertile ground for a healthy, growing family tree. Remember, the next time you pull up an obituary, read about the living as well as the dead.

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