Genealogy: A Brief History of Obituaries & Death Notices

Newspapers have been publishing obituaries for hundreds of years, making it easy for bereaved family and friends to learn the details of the life of the deceased as well as the funeral arrangements.

GenealogyBank has put this information from the past 300 years online, allowing genealogists to find their relatives within a few clicks.

300 years?

That’s a lot of obituaries, resulting in the largest collection online.

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Have obituaries really changed much over the course of three centuries?

Yes—of course they have, and so have newspapers.

But the basic rule of thumb has always been true: famous people get long obituaries and not-so-famous people get short ones.

Back in the days before the linotype machine (invented in 1886), the type for printing each day’s newspaper was set by hand. That took time and so, realistically, newspapers were generally only four pages long.

Fewer pages meant that there had to be a balance between the length of the news articles and the number and size of the advertisements. That’s why you see old obituaries that are brief—just one line announcing that some individuals had died—with longer, more detailed obituaries about people the editor thought would be of more general interest.

For example, look at the information packed into this brief obituary:

obituary for Ephraim Crofoot, Constitution newspaper article 3 March 1852

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 3 March 1852, page 3

This is a short obituary, but we learn that Ephraim Crofoot died on 24 February 1852 in Middletown, Connecticut. We also learn that he was 51 years old and likely was a lawyer, as indicated by the title “Esq.” [Esquire] following his name.

Now look at these obituary examples:

various obituaries, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper article 28 April 1826

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3

The opening paragraph has three brief obituaries:

  • In this town, of consumption, Dr. Joseph Wheeler, aged 46
  • Mrs. Sarah Sturtevant, wife of the late Mr. Cornelius S., aged 88
  • An infant child of Mr. John Phelps

Now contrast that last brief obituary for the infant child of John Phelps with the final obituary in this column—also for an infant who had died:

In Fitzwilliam, an infant daughter of Mr. Geo. Damon. Deacon Oliver Damon and wife have lived in Fitzwilliam 42 years, and this [is] the first instance of mortality that has occurred in his family or among his descendants (25 in all) during that time. Printers in Massachusetts are requested to notice this death.

Both were infants that died. Neither obituary gave the name of the child. One obituary was so brief it only gave the name of the father, even though the child died in Keene, New Hampshire, where the newspaper was published.

The other obituary named the father as well, but also provided more details. This infant’s death was “news”—this was the first death in the family of Deacon Oliver Damon in 42 years. This was big and the editor knew his readers would want to know about it. He even inserted the line “Printers in Massachusetts are requested to notice this death,” indicating to other newspaper editors the importance of this obituary in case they wanted to run it in their own newspapers.

The New Hampshire Sentinel published on 28 April 1826 may have only been four pages long, but the editor used his judgment as to how much copy (how many lines) he would give to each story.

Obituaries can be long or short. The size of the obituary was determined by the importance of the person who had died, the story to be told, and the time the newspaper editor and reporters had to research and write about the deceased. As towns grew into cities it became common for the family itself to write the obituary, so that the newspaper would publish more information about their relatives.

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Inside the newspaper industry these user-supplied obituaries became known as “Death Notices”—articles written by the family or friends and supplied to newspapers. The articles written by the newspaper staff continued to be called “Obituaries.”

Obituary columns in newspapers have carried all types of headers: Obituaries, Deaths, Died, In Remembrance, Memorials, etc.

For genealogists and the general public, the terms Death Notice and Obituary are synonymous. Most family historians refer to all biographical articles about the recently deceased as obituaries, regardless of who wrote them or how long/short they are.

Over time newspapers came to view these family-supplied articles as paid classified advertisements, and they began charging accordingly. It is customary now for most newspapers to charge by the word count, the inclusion of photographs, and the number of insertions.

Obituaries are critical for genealogists. Long or short, they contain the information and clues we need to document our family tree.

Related Newspaper Obituary Articles:

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Case Study Part 3: Finding Old Newspaper Articles about Family

Continuing my search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the history of the Crofoot family (see: “Case Study: Using Old Newspaper Articles to Learn about Your Ancestors” & “Case Study Part 2: How to Find Old Newspaper Articles about Family”) I found  information about the death of Ephraim Crofoot.

When we found the obituary of Thomas S. Crofoot published in August 1852, the newspaper article referred to his father as “the late Ephraim Crofoot, Esq.”

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3 Thomas Crofoot Death Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3.

This clue told us that Ephraim Crofoot had died before August 1852.

Digging deeper into the archives I found Ephraim Crofoot’s obituary that stated he died on 24 February 1852 at the age of 51.

Constitution Newspaper March 3, 1852 Ephraim Crofoot Death Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 3 March 1852, page 3.

A week later a notice appeared in the same newspaper alerting everyone that probate proceedings for Ephraim Crofoot’s estate had begun on 28 February 1852.

Constitution Newspaper 1852 Ephraim Crofoot Probate Notice

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 10 March 1852, page 4.

So far we have found quite a bit of genealogical information and clues about Ephraim Crofoot and his family in the newspaper archives including information about his marriages, children and death. It takes time to piece together the clues and facts that document a family tree.

In the weeks ahead I will continue to report on my findings about the Crofoot family and provide similar examples from other typical families to help you better understand the kinds of information that you can discover about your family history in old newspaper articles.

Case Study Part 2: How to Find Old Newspaper Articles about Family

As I continued to look in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the history of the Crofoot family (see: “Case Study: Using Old Newspaper Articles to Learn about Your Ancestors”) I found another clue.

Connecticut Journal Newspaper Esther Crofoot Death Notice 1829

Connecticut Journal (New Haven, Connecticut), 10 March 1829, page 3.

Another wife?

This historical obituary was for Mrs. Esther Crofoot who was the “wife of Ephraim C.”

Notice the newspaper editor simply gave his name as “Ephraim C.,” not repeating the surname Crofoot. The context was clear to the reader in this death notice, but these on-the-fly abbreviations can make it difficult to find every article about our target family.

So—we have an Ephraim Crofoot with a wife Esther, most likely married in the 1820s.

Earlier we found that an Ephraim Crofoot married Elizabeth W. Winship in 1830 and Betsey Sampson in 1850.

Is it the same Ephraim Crofoot in all three marriages?

It takes time to piece together the genealogical clues and facts that document a family tree.

In the weeks ahead I will continue to report on my newspaper findings about the Crofoot family and provide similar examples from other typical families.

Case Study: Using Old Newspaper Articles to Learn about Your Ancestors

Old newspapers provide the stories of our ancestors’ lives, helping to flesh out the names and dates on our family trees.

What kind of family history can be found in historical newspapers? Let’s pick a typical, ordinary family and find out.

For example, what can I discover about the Crofoot family that lived in Connecticut back to colonial times? Did they appear in the old newspapers?

Let’s see.

I’ll do a search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for the family surname Crofoot.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's newspaper search page for Crofoot

Let’s take a look at some of the surname search results.

Here is a wedding announcement article I found in an old newspaper for Ephraim Crofoot.

wedding announcement for Ephrim Crofoot and Elizabeth Winship, Connecticut Mirror newspaper article 1 May 1830

Connecticut Mirror (Hartford, Connecticut), 1 May 1830, page 3

OK. The core facts: Ephraim Crofoot married Miss Elizabeth W. Winship about April 1830 in Middletown, Connecticut.

Here is another reference to Ephraim Crofoot I found in an old newspaper death notice.

death notice for Esther Elizabeth Crofoot, Constitution newspaper article 4 October 1848

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 4 October 1848, page 3

Ephraim’s daughter Esther Elizabeth, aged 17 years, died 29 September 1848. Calculating back, this means she was born about 1831.

OK. That piece seems to fit nicely in the family puzzle, since Ephraim was married the year before in 1830. Esther Elizabeth probably was the daughter of Ephraim and Elizabeth W. (Winship) Crofoot. We’ll need to do more genealogy research to confirm that.

Here is another old newspaper reference to a child of Ephraim’s: Thomas S. Crofoot.

death notice for Thomas Crofoot, Constitution newspaper article 25 August 1852

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 25 August 1852, page 3

This death notice tells us that Ephraim’s son, Thomas S. Crofoot, was 19 years, 4 months old when he died in August 1852. Calculating back, that would put his birth at about April 1833. Again, that fits Ephraim’s 1830 marriage.

There is another clue: this newspaper article refers to his father as “the late Ephraim Crofoot, Esq.”

So—had our Ephraim Crofoot died by August 1852?

More genealogical facts to double check.

But, look at this old newspaper article. It is another marriage announcement for an Ephraim Crofoot, to a Betsey Sampson.

wedding announcement for Ephraim Crofoot and Betsey Sampson, Constitution newspaper article 27 February 1850

Constitution (Middletown, Connecticut), 27 February 1850, page 3

Is this the same Ephraim Crofoot? A different Ephraim Crofoot?

Had something happened to Elizabeth (Winship) Crofoot? Had she died? Was there a divorce?

It takes time to piece together all the genealogical clues and facts that document a family tree. As you can see, there are many articles in old newspapers that can help us discover the stories of our ancestors’ lives.

In the weeks ahead I will continue to report on my findings about the Crofoot family and provide similar case study examples from other typical American families to help you better understand how to find newspaper articles about your ancestors—and how you can use them to fill in your family tree.