29 August 2014

Newspaper obituaries and online memorials

A good obituary serves as a brief synopsis of a person’s life, from birth to death, and everything in between. Genealogical details may include the names of parents, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren, collateral relatives, and friends; birth and/or marriage dates; cause of death; funeral arrangements and burial location. Some include career, military, and voluntary work highlights; religious attendance; hobbies, favorite things to do, personal characteristics; illnesses, personal difficulties, hardships, and triumphs; and maybe even a photograph. It’s no wonder that obituaries are high on the list of records to search for family history.

Obituaries and Paid Notices

Originally, obituaries were news articles written by newspaper staff about well-known people. Larger newspapers sometimes skipped the details and offered a necrology, a list of names (sometimes with addresses, ages, and/or exact death dates) of people who had died recently. In addition, many newspapers contained paid advertisements, including death notices detailing funeral arrangements or estate matters; tribute notices from fraternal organizations, employers, and others connected with the deceased; memorial notices on the anniversaries of a person’s birth, marriage, death, or special occasion; and thank you notices from families acknowledging special help during difficult times.

These days, unless a person was famous or otherwise newsworthy, it’s more likely that an obituary was written by staff from a funeral home, with details added by family members and friends, before being published in the newspaper. Although these articles read more like staff-written obituaries than brief death notices, they are paid advertisements—another line item for funerary charges. And with the costs of burials, some people have skipped the newspaper fees and tried newer methods of offering tributes to the dead.

Finding Recent Obituaries

Through a Google search you may find obituaries posted on newspaper and funeral home web sites. Obituaries typically date from the time the newspaper or funeral home first decided to post them online. To narrow your search, you also can try ArrangeOnline’s directory of funeral homes. Some funeral directors contribute obituaries to the National Obituary Archive, where families and others are invited to make corrections for free while tributes may be attached to an obituary for a fee.

Legacy.com provides an obituary hosting service for more than 1,500 newspapers online. Most recent obituaries are available for free, while older obituaries may be viewed for a small fee. Use the ObitFinder search engine or have ObitMessenger deliver alerts to your email.

Finding Historical Obituaries

GenealogyBank, Newspapers.com, and other genealogy sites offer access to obituaries and other newspaper articles on a subscription basis. Before you subscribe, check their location and date ranges for areas that interest you.

This year, FamilySearch.org—the largest genealogy organization in the world—started a new initiative to index and post historical obituaries online for free. You can search, volunteer to index, or add a new obituary.

If you have a death date and location, some public libraries will check for obituaries in their newspaper collections. 

Online Memorials

Numerous web sites exist for posting public and private online memorials. Some are here today, gone tomorrow—dependent on one-time or annual maintenance fees, online candle sales, and memorial gifts, all of which may not generate enough income to keep a web site active. Other sites, such as Facebook and Fold3 (a subscription-based genealogy web site), are more stable, since memorial pages are not their primary focus and revenue stream. Some online tributes show up on search engine results; to find others, check Cyndi’s List for online memorials.