Funeral Sermons: How to Research Funeral Records for Genealogy

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains that in earlier times funeral sermons were published and sold—and these documents often provide a wealth of family history information.

You’re probably wondering what’s so exciting about funeral sermons, a rather sobering subject. Until recently I agreed, but then I did some genealogy research using funeral sermons and discovered that there are exciting ancestral details to be culled from them.

In fact, I urge all family historians to find and examine funeral sermons about their ancestors whenever they can.

Funeral Sermons: a Long and Honored Tradition

In earlier days, funeral sermons were often published. Authors (especially ministers) delivered inspirational and memorable sermons, often including personal family details about the deceased. Afterward, friends and bereaved family members requested copies for keepsakes; the funeral sermons were printed and sold to them.

Although published sermons are rare nowadays, the practice is a long and honored tradition.

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Newspaper Advertisements for Funeral Sermons

Early newspapers ran ads announcing the availability of funereal sermons for purchase. In order to entice sales, most of these ads include pertinent genealogical details that we as genealogists can use as proof documents for lineage society applications.

This newspaper advertisement for Hezekiah Huntington’s funeral sermon is typical. Notice that it includes his date of death, where he died, the burial date and the minister’s name.

ad for the sale of the funeral sermon for Hezekiah Huntington, Connecticut Gazette newspaper advertisement 14 May 1773

Connecticut Gazette (New London, Connecticut), 14 May 1773, page 2

By comparison, this obituary for Hezekiah Huntington is a disappointment with its dearth of details—the entire obituary is one simple line:

At New-London, the hon. Hezekiah Huntington, Esq; of Norwich.

obituary for Hezekiah Huntington, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 25 February 1773

Massachusetts Spy (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 February 1773, page 217

Just think: the old newspaper ad for the funeral sermon—let alone the actual funeral sermon itself—provides more details than the obituary!

Where to Find Funeral Sermons

GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives are a good place to find old ads for funeral sermons. Also, the site’s Historical Books collection contains digitized funeral sermons and eulogies.

a screenshot of the search page for GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection

Screenshot: search page for GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection

To find genealogical information in early funeral sermons, try searching both the newspaper archives for historical advertisements about the funeral, as well as the Historical Books collection.

My Own Family History Discovery in a Funeral Sermon

When I decided to look at the funeral sermons in GenealogyBank’s Historical Books collection, I really wasn’t expecting to find anything about my own family. How wrong I was! While browsing the titles on the search results page, one heading jumped out at me: it named my 6th great grandfather, Joseph Starr, husband of Mary Benedict.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search results page for funeral sermons

In all my years of genealogy research, I’ve never been able to find an obituary for Joseph Starr—so this 23-page funeral sermon was an exciting find. I already knew several things about my ancestor’s life, such as his occupation as a shoemaker, tanner and farmer, and military service with the 20th Regiment of Cap. Nehemiah Waterman’s Company during the American Revolutionary War.

New Details about My Ancestor Joseph Starr

photo of the cover of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802

Photo: cover of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802. Credit: GenealogyBank’s Historical Books.

This old funeral sermon confirmed some facts I already knew, but also added new details about Joseph Starr’s life. Some of these new research findings include:

  • Various vital record dates, including the year of his birth in 1726, his marriage in 1745, and his death on 3 April 1802.
  • Family details (11 children, 39 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren—74 in all, 66 of whom were alive at the time of his death).
  • The name of the minister, as well as his church (Rev. John Ely, pastor of the 2nd Church of Danbury).
  • Joseph Starr was healthy and attended church. (“As he enjoyed a good state of health he was seldom absent from public worship.”)
  • I also learned about his personality. (“He was affable, benevolent and hospitable; being a man of but few words he was not disposed to meddle with other men’s matters, and consequently he had perhaps as many friends, and as few enemies as most men; He lived beloved, and died greatly lamented.”)
  • The publication had been requested by surviving friends.
  • There were also kind words directed to the widow, her family and attending friends.
photo of part of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802

Photo: part of the funeral sermon for Captain Joseph Starr, 1802. Credit: GenealogyBank’s Historical Books.

All in all, it was an exciting genealogy research find—and for me, a funeral sermon with so many personal life details trumps an obituary any day.

(For more information about Joseph Starr, see: the History of Danbury; a lengthy genealogy book on the Starr family; and Find A Grave memorials 21148746 and 21148747.)

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Genealogy Tips for Researching Published Sermons

  • The date associated with the sermon will be the publication date, not the date of death.
  • The sermon publication day and month may not be exact, but the year is correct. Many funeral sermons are recorded in the database as January 1, because the exact date of publication is not known. (For example, Joseph Starr died on 3 April 1802, yet his funeral sermon is indexed in the database as 1 January 1802 because the indexers had no way of knowing the actual date of publication.)
  • Look for other items in the publication. In the funeral sermon examples below, a copy of a will, letters, and a transcription of a tombstone were found.
  • Don’t forget to search for the newspaper advertisements that accompanied the sermons.
  • Prominent ancestors are more likely to have had published sermons than lesser known persons.
  • Others who died around the same time may be named in the body of the document, even if not included in the title. (In one of the examples below, Capt. Whittlesey passed away as the result of a hurricane, and the crew members of his ship were also named. In other instances, people who died the same week or month were also mentioned in passing.)

Funeral Sermon Examples

The following examples demonstrate the variety of genealogical and personal family information that can be found when researching published funeral sermons.

  • John Cushing: This 15-page sermon includes information about the widow and orphaned children.
photo of the funeral sermon for John Cushing, 1806

“A sermon, delivered at Ashburnham, May 22, 1806, at the interment of Mr. John Cushing, Jun. who expired at the house of his father. By Seth Payson, A.M. pastor of the church in Rindge. Published by request.”

  • Lydia Fisk: The title reveals that Mrs. Lydia Fisk was the consort of the Rev. Elisha Fisk and shows the Bible passages cited.
photo of the funeral sermon for Lydia Fisk, 1805

“A sermon, preached July 13, 1805. At the funeral of Mrs. Lydia Fisk, late consort of the Rev. Elisha Fisk, Pastor of the First Church in Wrentham. By Nathanial [i.e., Nathanael] Emmons, D.D. pastor of the church in Franklin.”

  • Alexander Hamilton: This funeral discourse includes a copy of his will, one of his papers and several letters.
photo of the funeral sermon for Alexander Hamilton, 1804

“A discourse, delivered in the city of Albany, occasioned by the ever to be lamented death of Gen. Alexander Hamilton, July 29, 1804. By Eliphalet Nott, A.M. pastor of the Presbyterian Church in said city. To which is added, a paper, written by Gen. Hamilton: containing, his motives and reflections on the causes that led to this fatal catastrophe. Also—his will, Bishop Moore’s letter—and a letter by the Rev. Mr. Mason.”

  • Mrs. Harris: On page 20, this document includes information about a family member’s gravestone.
photo of the funeral sermon for Mrs. William Harris, 1801

“A tribute of filial respect, to the memory of his mother, in a discourse, delivered at Dorchester, Feb. 8, 1801, the Lord’s day after her decease: by Thaddeus Mason Harris.”

  • Capt. William Whittlesey: The appendix mentions the tragic details of his death, along with the crew members who accompanied him.

photo of the funeral sermon for William Whittlesey, 1807

“The providence of God universal; a sermon, delivered at East Guilford, Feb. 1807. Occasioned by the death of Capt. William Whittlesey and others. By John Elliott, A.M. pastor of a church in Guilford. Published at the request of the mourners. [Two lines from Isaiah]”

Funeral sermons are an often-overlooked genealogical treasure, providing details about our ancestors’ lives perhaps not found anywhere else. Be sure to include them in your family history searches to discover more about the stories of your ancestors’ lives.

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Newspaper Articles Fill Blanks in Family History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott researches old newspapers to find stories about a member of his extended family, the 19th century philanthropist John Huntington—a founding donor of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

While growing up, one of my favorite family weekend trips was to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art. I would marvel at the art, the sculpture, and of course as a young boy, the Armor Court which displayed suits of armor. Later, during my college years, the Museum was my favorite destination as an escape from the pressures of studying. I’d make the 1½ hour drive over to Cleveland and enjoy the art, especially my all-time favorite painting, Water Lilies (Agapanthus) by Claude Monet. Years later during my mother’s 90th birthday family reunion in Cleveland, I was proud that my son and daughter-in-law took our young grandsons to visit the Museum as well.

Amazingly, just a few days ago I learned I had yet another family reason to appreciate the Museum: I discovered that one of my ancestors was a founding donor to establish the Museum.

portrait of philanthropist John Huntington

Portrait of John Huntington. Credit: from the author’s collection.

I made this discovery while in the midst of a review of those family tree branches that I had not fully researched. I began work on one of my Bohemian ancestors, Frank Joseph Ptak, who married Margaret Alice Walker. I realized that I had never researched the Walker family, so I began there. After utilizing a few resources, such as the marvelous online database of the Cleveland Public Library’s Cleveland Necrology File, I was deep into searching the newspapers of the time on GenealogyBank.com.

I was diligently reading marriage announcements, obituaries, and a few interesting stories regarding a street assault or two, when a sentence at the bottom of the marriage announcement titled “Dalbey-Leek” caught my eye.

wedding announcement for Dorothy Leek and Sherman Dalbey, Plain Dealer newspaper article 6 June 1937

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 June 1937, page 97

As you can see the line stated: “The bride is a grand niece of the late John Huntington, philanthropist.” Having been a fundraiser myself in an earlier career, I just had to look into this philanthropist. This was especially true since I knew Margaret Alice Walker’s mother was Ann H. (Huntington) Walker.

I took a chance and searched directly on John Huntington, narrowing my search to Ohio newspapers, and my very first result was more than I had hoped for.

Magnificent Donation to the City of Cleveland by John Huntington, Plain Dealer newspaper article 4 February 1893

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 4 February 1893, page 1

There in the fourth paragraph as “Item 2” were John’s specific legacies to his family members, and he nicely listed each of his brothers and sisters—which included Ann Walker!

I researched further and soon found a very complete article which, while reporting John Huntington’s death in London, England, contained the subheading that included this information: “One of the First Men to Make a Fortune from The Standard Oil Company.”

John Huntington Dead, New York Tribune newspaper obituary, 12 January 1893

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 12 January 1893, page 5

This article also contained reports of his birth date, town, father, his father’s occupation, his living children, and even the report of how his son Arthur had been killed by a train. This article helped me discover the birth records for John Huntington in the United Kingdom, his marriage record, and records for several of his family members.

Out of interest, I searched the newspapers to see if there was an account of the death of Arthur Huntington as mentioned in the New York Tribune. I discovered a gruesome, but complete, accounting of the accident that led to his death.

Both Legs Cut Off, Plain Dealer newspaper article 26 April 1891

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 April 1891, page 2

I have to admit the headline “Both Legs Cut Off” sent shivers through me. The next day, on 27 April 1981, the Plain Dealer reported the grim news that Arthur had died from his extensive injuries.

In need of some more cheerful news to finish my day’s research, I came across a delightful article. It reported that the mayor of Cleveland, Newton Baker, was going to dedicate the Cleveland Museum of Art by sitting in the moonlight and having a slice of watermelon on the marble steps.

Watermelon Will Dedicate Museum, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 June 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 June 1915, page 13

I remember walking up those steps many times, but I don’t recall seeing any watermelon seeds!