I love reading obituaries – particularly old ones! Okay, in terms of the general population, I guess that’s a little strange. But for the average genealogy buff/family historian, it’s probably normal. In fact, if you visit my genealogy website, you can find many obituaries that I have transcribed for my various family lines.
Obituaries written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are often very different than the ones written now. I love the phrases they used – “worthy and useful citizen,” “interesting child,” “much esteemed,” and the somewhat jarring “[insert name here] is no more.” In spite of the awkward or flowery phrases, old obituaries can sometimes give us a small peak into our ancestors’ lives. For example, the obituary may name the church and other organizations to which the deceased belonged. In the case of the elderly and/or the prominent, the obituary may give a whole life story! Unfortunately, I’m not usually that lucky, although I gladly settle for the list of surviving children and other relatives.
As with all resources, it’s generally a good idea to check for the obituaries of the siblings of your direct ancestors. I remember when I was still pretty new at researching and found the obituary of my second great-grandfather, Augustus Bechtel, on microfilm at the library. At that time I didn’t know who his parents were. His obituary did not tell me his parents, but it did mention a married sister who died earlier the same month. So, not really expecting a whole lot, I re-wound the microfilm a little and found hers. Bingo! Her obituary included the names of her parents! I quickly printed them both out and did the happy dance in my head!
Unfortunately, the real trick with obituaries can be finding them. While it’s definitely worth checking online sources, I have only found a small percentage that way. I usually give google a try, as well as any newspaper subscription sites for which I have a current subscription. At various times the subscriptions sites I have had access to included Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, Godfrey.org, and WorldVitalRecords.com.
If the obituary can’t be found online, the next step is to search at local libraries and historical societies. Fortunately for me, I live fairly close to the localities of my ancestors and I have found some excellent resources. First, if you are researching ancestors who lived in Chester County, PA, there is the Chester County Historical Society. They have an amazing newspapers clippings file organized by surname. The really great thing about this, is you don’t need to already know the date of death. Just check the surname file for your individual and see if they have an obituary, marriage notice or any other type of news article. I have collected many obituaries this way.
My other great resource repository is the Pottstown library. They have the old Pottstown newspapers on microfilm. But their best kept secret is that a local researcher is scanning obits, marriage notices, etc and putting them on CDs. If you ask the librarians, they will give you access to the CDs. Many of the CD’s include indicies. For the ones that don’t, the scanned images usually contain the last name of the deceased as part of the filename. For these you can do a search. Of course, if you’re like me (and you have some extra time) you might quickly scan through the various files for a particular month or year looking for a name that catches your eye. This is how I found the obit for one of my 3rd great-aunts. She happened to die about the same time as someone else I was looking for. Her obit mentioned her maiden name and the name of her sister, my 2nd great-grandmother. The maiden name just popped off the page, catching my eye! This was a huge bonus as she was a sister that I hadn’t previously known existed.
So just to summarize – check out those obits. They can really be gold mines for your research!