How to Find an Obituary for a Specific Person

As part of your genealogy and ancestry research, you may need to find the obituary of a specific person. In this article, we will provide a list of useful resources that will help you find the obituary of a specific person.

Obituaries are one of the most important sources of information that genealogists seek when looking for clues pertaining to the life of an ancestor. What many people may not know is that the practice of announcing deaths in such a manner dates back to around 59 BC.

Roman newspapers etched on metal or stone known as Acta Diurna (Daily Events) would be posted at important points around Rome. It would feature notable births and deaths as well as general gossip regarding the important people of the city.

In 1439 with the invention of the printing press the practice of announcing notable deaths continued with the advent of newspapers. This is something that has persisted and remains the common practice today although those mentioned no longer have to be rich or famous.

So why are obituaries so indispensable to genealogy and more importantly how can we find the ones we need for our research?

Importance of Obituaries

To Family and Friends

Those with elderly parents or those who have spent time living with a grandparent may have experienced them sitting reading the local newspaper looking to see if anyone they know has died. As we get older we get a morbid fascination with our own mortality and by extension with those we know who are close to our age.

Obituaries are the chance for a family to announce to whoever may not already know that one of their loved ones has died. It often allows the family to tell people when the funeral is taking place, allowing the chance for old friends to attend and give their condolences.

Obituaries serve an important social function in that the families do not have to take time in the midst of their grief to try and contact everyone their deceased loved one may have known.

To Genealogists

Obituaries hold great importance to a genealogist even though they are technically not considered a strong proof document. Searching through obituaries for ancestors may help us find out important information regarding them such as:

  • Close family members
  • Religion and church affiliations
  • Date and place of birth
  • Date and place of death
  • Former profession
  • Important biographical information

The family information that can be found in an obituary can be beneficial in differentiating two people with the same name in official records. Knowing the names of siblings and parents can make identifying the correct census record for an individual much easier.

Just like with any mystery it can be a lot of small clues that help you find the truth and the documents to prove it. We must always remember that obituaries can be inaccurate and that the information within should be viewed as a clue until it leads to better-documented proof.

Does Everyone Have an Obituary?

The simple answer to this question is no, not everyone has an obituary. They are not like death certificates because they are something that a family member creates for a person rather than an official record of death.

We do not automatically get an obituary upon a person's death and if no one chooses to make the death announcement then there will be nothing for us to find.

In researching history for so long I have lost count of the number of times people have seemingly just disappeared from the public record. At some point, they must have died but a death record can’t be found and no one ever posted a death notice.

It, therefore, is important to note that there may not be an obituary for the person you are trying to research. So a smart genealogist will search anywhere that such a posting might be but also understand that if it isn’t found it may simply not exist.

How to Find an Obituary

The important place to start when it comes to seeking an obituary is gathering as much information as you can about the person in question. You need their full name, other names they may have used, approximate date of birth, place of birth and likely place of death.

There may be many options as to where someone may have died so you may be searching several places. Also, remember that sometimes an obituary may be posted in an area someone was born as well as where they died.

Once you have your target areas you need to determine what publications would have been in circulation around the time your focus person may have died. The notice may only have run in one newspaper so it’s best to try and check them all.

Make Use of The Library

The local library in a town your ancestor may have died may be an invaluable source for finding their obituary. They may have full collections of local newspapers in which you can search the death notification sections. Some libraries may also have digitized versions that you can view online to save you the trip.

Where to find Obituaries Online

A good free source to research obituaries online is Legacy.com. This site allows you to search for specific people by location and approximate obituary date. It may take multiple searches and the use of variations on your information to locate an obituary but it is certainly worth trying this site.

If you happen to have an Ancestry.com membership with a filled out tree you may also from time to time receive hints that lead you to Newpapers.com. In the past, this has helped me locate many different family announcements including weddings, births and deaths.

If you know your region of focus for the obituary you can search online for that area in particular and you may find dedicated sites that can lead the way. A local newspaper may be able to direct you to where you can view old copies of their publications.

Funeral homes are a great source for more recent obituaries with more and more people posting online rather than in print.

Conclusion

Obituaries date back to ancient Rome and today has become a very common practice. Sometimes an obituary may be only a piece of information we find regarding one of our ancestors but the information contained within can help us find out more details.

They are not always 100% accurate so we should never assume them to be. Their importance is as a guide to further identify a person based on the people they considered family and the things people said of them after their death.

Not everyone has an obituary but when they do they can sometimes be found with relative ease. The key is to know as much as you can about the person and especially when and where they may have died. Once we know where to look we can learn the best publications to check and hopefully successfully locate what we are seeking.