Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows that – beyond the name and date of death – obituaries provide many clues that can lead your family history research into new and unexpected directions.
An obituary is an obituary is an obituary. We use them to verify a death but what else does an obituary tell us? One of the reasons I love to read obituaries is for all the other clues and records they point to. When you search obituaries, what more family history information can you be looking for?
Obituaries Go beyond Names and Dates
Let’s face it, sometimes obituaries can be brief and vague without much helpful information – but in most cases obituaries provide clues that lead to additional records. Case in point: this 1918 obituary for Bryan McDonough. We are given just a few facts about him, and no information about other family members. The obituary tells us he was 68 years of age, ill for six years prior to his death, and died at his home. It also provides these important clues: “He was one of the oldest members of St. Peter’s Catholic Church and had been employed at the Reading Iron Works for many years.”
A Google search on St. Peter’s Catholic Church points to a website for the church (which was established in 1752) and contact information which can be helpful in locating records. While St. Peter’s is in the Diocese of Allentown, additional research guidance can be found on the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center website, including a parish boundary map and a guide to starting your genealogy research. A search on the FamilySearch Catalog also shows resources for cemetery marker readings, a church history article, and some 19th century records for baptisms, marriages and confirmations.
Genealogy Tip: Enhance your newspaper research by conducting a Place search in the FamilySearch Catalog.
Go beyond the Obituary
Searching for an obituary may seem like a simple task. If you know when the person died, you look for a notice published a day to a week or so after. Simple, right? While it seems like a simple task, it’s always good to expect the unexpected.
Here’s an example of two death notices printed weeks apart for the same person. In 1910, Joseph H. Taylor was a 22-year-old Mormon missionary serving in Germany. His November 21st death notice mentions Joseph’s untimely death but not much more – as can be expected under the circumstances. Aside from his death, it is announced that burial will occur in December and that the body is being accompanied home by his family.
Later, in the December 8th Salt Lake Telegram, the reader is informed that Joseph died at Stuttgart, Germany, on November 14th. His services were held in the Salt Lake 14th ward and his burial was at the “city cemetery.”
Both death notices provide us with some good family history information including his name, age, where he was when he died, religion, family names, and where he was buried. So that’s enough, right? Well, if we continue searching we can find even more! For example, a search on his name and residence (Utah) in the Historical Records collection of FamilySearch finds a death record in the online images for Salt Lake County Death Records. In this record we learn the cause of death, his parents’ names (including their state of birth and the mother’s maiden name), and date and place of burial.
Any time a younger person dies unexpectedly, or a death is the result of an accident or violence, I always search for more newspaper articles. So in this case, I went back to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – but this time instead of searching on “Joseph H. Taylor,” I typed “Joseph Taylor” in the search engine and narrowed the search to Utah. With that search, I received a hit on a longer article about his death that provided even more information about his religious background.
This article talks about his illness and how well loved he was in the community. It also explains that his brother was serving a mission and that he was the grandson of Mormon President John Taylor. As a researcher, I know that I need to go back to FamilySearch and look for records dealing with the family history of John Taylor, as well as membership records and any histories of the ward he was attending in Salt Lake.
GenealogyTip: Always conduct multiple searches for your ancestor using variations of their name. By searching on only one version of their name you could be missing longer, more detailed articles.
Where Were They Buried?
Every word in an obituary is a potential clue to more information, even when the obituary seems to say nothing at all. The 1914 death of J. J. Hartenbower is noted very briefly in the Emporia Gazette. We learn he was 75 years of age, “a wealthy land-owner of Sedgwick and Butler Counties,” and that he died on June 23rd in Los Angeles, California.
Additional news articles about Hartenbower fail to provide the cemetery information. A check on FamilySearch verifies he is found in the California Death Index, but that index does not include burial information.
A search on Google Books provides us more details on Hartenbower’s life. His entry in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 16, includes the name of the church he attended in California: The First Congregational in Los Angeles.
Hartenbower lived in many different places throughout his life, and one newspaper article commented that he left “nearly 1 million to his widow.” So clearly he could be buried anywhere. The one place that most likely we could find that burial is on his death certificate, but it is not available online. The next place to check, after thoroughly searching online newspapers and vital record sources, is a cemetery index – either through one of the online websites or via microfilm at FamilySearch (search the catalog for the county or state and then the subject “Cemeteries”).
In this case, Jeremiah J. Hartenbower’s burial information, wife’s name, and photo of his tombstone can be found online. He’s buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Genealogy Tip: Work on creating a profile of your ancestor by using Google Booksto find mentions in family history books, biographical works, city directories, and periodicals.
Obituaries are important to genealogical research for a couple of reasons. Obviously they provide us with a date of death. But they can also provide additional biographical as well as death information that point to additional records like religious and cemetery records. As you read the obituary of your ancestor, note what additional records it leads you to and follow up on them.
Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from recent and historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present. Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/
Related Obituaries Articles:
- Massive Online U.S. Obituaries Project Will Make It Easier to Find Your Ancestors
- Researching Recent Obituaries to Extend My Family Tree
- Peculiar, Unusual, and Stranger-than-Fiction Obituaries
- Pearls of Life Wisdom from Pink Mullaney’s Obituary
- Truly Personal Obituaries from the Recent Obituary Archives