6 Tips for Name Research with Obituaries: Who Are the Survivors?

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena takes a close look at obituaries and funeral notices and shows how the other names mentioned—survivors of the deceased, pall bearers, those sending flowers, etc., provide important clues that can steer your family history research in new, and sometimes unexpected, directions.

What information are you looking for when you search newspapers for an obituary? That’s a hard question: you might be looking for an obituary to reveal a death date, or the name of the cemetery where the deceased is buried. Maybe you are just trying to find out more about the person’s life, or perhaps you are hoping for some confirmation of something you already suspect.

While all parts of an obituary are genealogy gold, the names found in an obituary—especially the list of those that survived the recently departed—can yield valuable clues for your genealogy research.

1) Research the Lists of the Living

A survivors list in an obituary or death notice is helpful because it verifies who was still alive at the time the obituary was published. If you are trying to determine the identity of two similarly-named individuals, or need to learn who was still alive at the time of your ancestor’s death, an obituary’s survivors list can be invaluable.

The following obituary for Mrs. F. J. Frost (notice her first name is not revealed, a good reminder that women may be simply listed as a “Mrs.”) provides a wonderful listing of her children and grandchildren, and their residences. These are fantastic family history clues for your further genealogy research.

obituary for Mrs. F. J. Frost, Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 11 January 1939

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 11 January 1939, page 7

Remember that obituaries for an individual may be published in newspapers from states other than where the deceased resided, so make your initial search a wide one. In this case, for example, the deceased is from California but her son is a resident of Brownsville, Texas, where the obituary was printed. Interestingly, the last paragraph is all about the son and not the mother, even though it’s her obituary.

Enter Last Name










2) Note the Names of Other Departed

In some cases the other name/s included in a death notice or obituary may be that of a family member but not an actual survivor. In the following example reporting the death of Herbert T. Tait, it identifies him as the husband of the late Arabella—although her name appears in his obituary, she is clearly not a survivor.

death notice for Herbert Tait, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 March 1911

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 March 1911, page 13

3) Remember Survivors Are Everywhere

Sure the list of survivors (typically a spouse, children, grandchildren, parents and siblings) can be found in most obituaries—but don’t forget to scan for the names of pall bearers or those sending flowers, especially in notices printed after the funeral. These names might be family members but may be more difficult to pick out due to unfamiliar surnames.

In this death notice for Mr. Isadore C. Block we find names for his wife, sisters and brother. Pall bearers are also listed—and while none of their surnames match the listed family members, it would be important to research each one because they might represent a cousin, nephew, or in-law.

death notice for Isadore C. Block, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 2 March 1935

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 2 March 1935, section II, page 10

4) Tracing Women’s Names in Obits

Verifying relationships can be challenging in cases where all the women are listed by married surnames or entirely by their husband’s name. One of the difficulties in tracing female ancestors is finding those who married several times when you are unaware of each husband’s surname.

Enter Last Name










In this very brief notice we learn of Mrs. Hattie J. Miller’s death and her survivors, including her sisters Mrs. Frances J. Cohn, Mrs. Erma B. Miller, and Mrs. Selma B. Rothschild. No spouse or children are listed for Mrs. Miller. Luckily her brothers are also listed, providing us with a possible maiden name for Hattie and her sisters: Beirsdorf.

death notice for Hattie J. Miller, Hyde Park Herald newspaper article 14 December 1928

Hyde Park Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 14 December 1928, page 30

5) Not All Survivors Are Family

As you look for names in an obituary don’t forget to note any mentions of membership organizations. Those groups might include very good friends that could have honored the deceased in their own way through a special meeting, donation to the family, or some kind of memorial in their records.

In this notice of the death of Alfred R. Huddy, he is listed as being a member of the O.U.A.M. and the V. of F. W. of the U.S., possibly meaning the Order of United American Mechanics and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, respectively. With this information, additional ancestor research should be conducted in the newspapers (look for article about the person and their group’s activities) and in archival collections for membership lists, records, and images.

obituary for Alfred R. Huddy, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 19 April 1918

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 19 April 1918, page 11

6) But What’s Their Name???? Finding Unlisted Relatives

There’s probably nothing more frustrating than seeing vague references in obituaries to survivors like “he leaves 5 children and 10 grandchildren…” Or this obituary for William E. Rivers, which tells more about his medical history than the names of those he left behind. His obituary and a subsequent notice don’t provide his wife’s name, although she survived him. Further research into his family tree would include a search for Mrs. William E. Rivers, Mrs. W. E. Rivers, and other variations of his name prior to and after his death in 1917. In addition to newspaper research, a genealogist could check the census and city directories for this family.

obituary for William E. Rivers, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 21 July 1917

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 21 July 1917, page 5

Genealogy Tip: It can be tempting to focus solely on information about the deceased in an obituary, death or funeral notice. However, take time to analyze everything about that article including all of the names mentioned. Those other people’s names can uncover important familial relationship connections that will assist you in your family history searches, and ultimately help you get to know your ancestor better.

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Curious & Funny Epitaphs of Famous People & the Not-So-Famous

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary presents some of the hilarious or unusual—and, in some cases, quite touching—epitaphs she has discovered.

Are you an expert on some of the more famous epitaphs found on tombstones?

To see if you are, take this handy Famous People’s Tombstone Epitaphs quiz—which you are welcome to share with your genealogy-loving and cemetery-sleuthing friends—and then check your answers below.

a quiz of epitaphs found on famous people's tombstones

Authors of Their Own Epitaphs

If you want to be certain you’ll be remembered in a unique way, then write your own epitaph. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) did it, so why not you? Besides, it’s a great way to make sure you get in the last words you want!

Thomas Jefferson’s Epitaph

Of the two, Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph is the more serious. Prior to his death on 4 July 1826, he wrote:

“Here lies Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Statutes establishing religious toleration in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Thomas Jefferson's epitaph, Macon Weekly Telegraph newspaper article 2 January 1855

Macon Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 2 January 1855, page 2

Benjamin Franklin’s Epitaph

I prefer Dr. Franklin’s epitaph; he humorously described himself as “food for worms” prior to his passing on 17 April 1790.

Benjamin Franklin's epitaph, Massachusetts Centinel newspaper article 5 May 1790

Massachusetts Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 May 1790, page 58

William Shakespeare’s Epitaph

Another famous historical figure who wrote his own epitaph was William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare’s tombstone inscription, which has been widely debated, suggests that a visitor might be cursed if he moved Shakespeare’s bones. One theory is that Shakespeare wished to scare away grave robbers; another is that as cemeteries filled, he wished to deter the custom of moving existing interments to make room for others. (See his grave from Holy Trinity Churchyard in Stratford-upon-Avon, England at www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1450.)

Shakespeare wrote:

“Good friends, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dirt inclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
But curst be he that moves my bones.”

William Shakespeare's epitaph, Providence Gazette newspaper article 23-30 December 1769

Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), 23-30 December 1769, page 2

Sam Houston’s Epitaph

Then there is that famous Texan, Sam Houston (1793-1863). As a senator from Texas, he delivered a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate defending the Compromise of 1850. Worried that slavery would split the Union, he declared: “I wish, if this Union must be dissolved, that its ruins may be the monuments of my grave, and the graves of my family. I wish no epitaph to be written to tell that I survived the ruin of this glorious Union.”

He died in the middle of the Civil War, and no epitaph was written for him. However, his gravesite memorial features a quote by Andrew Jackson: “The world will take care of Houston’s fame.”

a photo of Sam Houston’s gravesite memorial in Huntsville, Texas

Photo: Sam Houston’s gravesite memorial in Huntsville, Texas. Credit: Wikipedia.

Curious & Memorable Epitaphs of the Famous and Not-So-Famous

Some epitaphs are noteworthy because they were written for famous people—and others are memorable for their uniqueness. While researching this topic, I discovered that many epitaphs are simply urban legends and don’t exist in reality—but the epitaph examples below are real. Just follow the links to check the inscriptions with photographs of the tombstones at findagrave.com.

Lucille Ball’s Epitaph

“You’ve Come Home”

(Lake View Cemetery, Jamestown, New York:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7003071)

Deborah Marie Bennett’s Epitaph

“Life is short,
Eat dessert first”

(Mount Hope Cemetery, Pescadero, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=99693195)

Jonathan Blake’s Epitaph

“Here lies the body of
Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake”

(Uniontown Cemetery, Uniontown, Pennsylvania:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=39158322)

Mel Blanc’s Epitaph

“That’s All Folks”

(Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=100)

Rodney Dangerfield’s Epitaph

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

(Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=9556754)

Marguerite Dewey Daniels’s Epitaph

“She always said her
Feet were killing her,
But no one believed her.”

(Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=28457972)

Bette Davis’s Epitaph

“She Did It the Hard Way”

(Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=258)

Jack Dempsey’s Epitaph

“Heavyweight Champion of the World
A gentle man and a gentleman”

(Southampton Cemetery, Southampton, New York:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=275)

Murphy A. Dreher Jr.’s Epitaph

“This ain’t bad
Once you get used to it.”

(Star Hill Cemetery, Saint Francisville, Louisiana:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=95370531&PIpi=65389055)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Epitaph

“So we beat our boats against
The current, borne back
Ceaselessly into the past”
The Great Gatsby

(Old Saint Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery, Rockville, Maryland:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=344)

Robert Frost’s Epitaph

“I Had a Lover’s Quarrel with the World”

(Old Bennington Cemetery, Bennington, Vermont:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=371)

Sal Giardino’s Epitaph

“World’s Greatest Electrician”

[This tombstone looks like a light bulb.]
(Laurel Grove Memorial Park, Totowa, New Jersey:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=5103)

Merv Griffin’s Epitaph

“I will not be right back
After this message”

(Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=20909851)

Joan Hackett’s Epitaph

“Go Away—I’m Asleep”

(Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1447)

William H. Hahn Jr.’s Epitaph

“I Told You I Was Sick”

(Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=7968130)

Rita Hayworth’s Epitaph

“To yesterday’s companionship
And tomorrow’s reunion”

(Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=1253)

Coretta Scott King’s Epitaph

“And now abide faith, hope,
Love, these three; but the
Greatest of these is love.”
I Cor. 13:13

(Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Atlanta, Georgia:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=582)

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epitaph

“Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty
I’m free at last.”

(Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Atlanta, Georgia:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=582)

Harvey Korman’s Epitaph

“You’re Born, You Suffer, and You Die”

(Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=27185449)

Jack Lemmon’s Epitaph

“Jack Lemmon in”

(Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=22822)

Paul G. Lind’s Epitaph

“WEMISSU”

[This tombstone looks like a scrabble board.]
(Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, Portland, Oregon:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=27240724)

Sylvester B. McCracken’s Epitaph

“School is out
Teacher has gone home”

(Grace Lawn Cemetery, Elkhart, Indiana:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=43210077)

Lester Moore’s Epitaph

“Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a .44
No les [sic], no more”

(Boothill Graveyard, Tombstone, Arizona:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19899)

Leslie Nielsen’s Epitaph

“Let ’Er Rip”

[And on the bench:]
“Sit Down Whenever You Can”

(Evergreen Cemetery, Fort Lauderdale, Florida:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=62278982)

Dr. William P. Rothwell’s Epitaph

“This Is on Me”
—Rx

(Oak Grove Cemetery, Pawtucket, Rhode Island:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=11588247)

Billy Wilder’s Epitaph

“I’m a writer
But then
Nobody’s perfect”

(Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6295551)

Here is a collage of some more curious epitaphs, all found in historical newspapers.

a collage of epitaphs found in historical newspapers

If you know of some curious or funny epitaphs from cemeteries near you, please share them with us in the comments!