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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How to Do Genealogical Research: Damon Family Case Study

Sometime during the next few weeks, as we continue to add new content to our online archives, GenealogyBank will reach a milestone: we will have 1 billion more records than the total we launched our website with five years ago. Wow, that’s a lot of additional genealogy records!

I wanted to see what I could find in GenealogyBank with all this added material—so I chose a family at random and set out on a genealogical research investigation.

Researching the Family of Minnie M. Damon

I picked Minnie M. Damon who married James W. Wright on 31 December 1890 in Keene, New Hampshire. With Christmas still in the air and New Year’s Eve approaching, the couple was married by the Rev. C. E. Harrington.

A search in GenealogyBank found their marriage announcement in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8.

wright damon marriage notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper january 7, 1891

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 7 January 1891, page 8

This marriage announcement is a great genealogical find. It gives terrific details about the wedding.

And—what about those “white silk slippers” the bride wore, the same ones her mother wore when she got married 38 years before? Does someone in the family still have them?

Hmm…they were married “at the home of the bride’s mother.” Why no mention of the father? Had he died? Was there a divorce?

Genealogical Research Find 1: George Damon (Minnie’s Father)

The next step in our genealogical research is to find out even more about Minnie’s dad. Digging deeper into our online archives I found the death notice of the bride’s father. He had died just six months earlier.

george damon death notice new hampshire sentinel june 4 1890

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 4 June 1890, page 8

George Damon was “aged 68 years 8 months and 27 days” when he died on 2 June 1890.

Next we want to subtract those figures from his death date to see when he was born.

George’s date of birth works out to 6 September 1821.

There is a handy site for calculating these dates: see TimeandDate.com

time and date calculator

Time and date calculator

Genealogical Research Find 2: Lucy Bowker/Damon (Minnie’s Mother)

Digging deeper into our historical newspaper archives I found the marriage record of her parents: George and Lucy (Bowker) Damon.

damon bowker marriage notice weekly eagle newspaper september 20, 1852

Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3

Their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle (Brattleboro, Vermont), 20 September 1852, page 3.

Whoa—hold on: their marriage announcement was published in the Weekly Eagle, a Brattleboro, Vermont, newspaper?

But they lived in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. The newspaper even said that they were “all of” Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

So, why did a Vermont newspaper publish the announcement of their wedding?

map of fitzwilliam new hampshire

Map of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire

Because newspaper editors wanted to sell papers, that’s why.

Brattleboro is only 40 miles from Fitzwilliam, and the Weekly Eagle was regularly bought and read by the residents there.

Genealogical Research Find 3: Elijah Bowker (Minnie’s Maternal Grandfather)

And here is a newspaper article about Lucy Bowker’s father, Captain Elijah Bowker, praising his life of service. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1.

elijah bowker tribute new hampshire sentinel newspaper june 28, 1877

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 June 1877, page 1

What else could I find out about the Damon family in my genealogical research?

Branching Out the Damon Family Tree

I decided to do a broader genealogy search by searching on only the surname (Damon) and their hometown (Fitzwilliam).

screenshot of genealogybank's search form

GenealogyBank search form

Both “Damon” and “Fitzwilliam” are uncommon words. It is likely that all Damons from Fitzwilliam are related, but we need to sort them out to make sure.

This broad genealogy search produced a few hundred surname record results.

That is a reasonable amount of genealogy records to sift through, so I started reading through all of them.

Genealogical Research Find 4: Martha Damon (Minnie’s Aunt)

One death record in particular caught my eye. It was published in the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 28 April 1826, page 3.

martha damon death notice new hampshire sentinel newspaper april 28, 1826

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

There in the third paragraph: “In Fitzwilliam, an infant daughter [Martha Damon, 1825-1826] of Mr. Geo. Damon.”

This little girl was the aunt of Minnie M. (Damon) Wright—the woman I started my investigation with.

Genealogical Research Find 5: George Damon and Deacon Oliver Damon (Minnie’s Paternal Grandfather and Her Paternal Great-Grandfather)

The “Geo. [George] Damon” named in this death notice was Minnie’s paternal grandfather [George Damon, 1796-1840] and the “Deacon Oliver Damon” [1758-1837] also named was her paternal great-grandfather.

OK. This newspaper obituary was for a two-year-old infant, and it would be easy to assume that such a notice would have minimal genealogical clues. But, I like to read every document.

As it turns out this obituary gives us lots of critical genealogical information:

“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 for Massachusetts are requested to notice this death.”

As of 1826, there were 25 descendants of the family in that area and none of them had died over the previous 42 years.

Digging deeper into GenealogyBank’s online archives I found more details in Deacon Oliver Damon’s obituary, published by the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3.

oliver damon obituary new hampshire sentinel newspaper november 9, 1837

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 9 November 1837, page 3

He was a Deacon of the Congregational Church, and he fought in the Revolutionary War. Clearly there is more genealogical research that we can do on this family.

Do you remember seeing in these obituaries the phrase “Printers in Mass. are requested to notice this death”? This note from the newspaper’s editors gives a strong indication that the Damon family has a family connection to Massachusetts.

So, the next steps in our genealogical investigation are to sort through all of the “Damon” references in and around Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, and extend that search out to Massachusetts.

Damon?

The only “Damon” I ever heard of is the actor, Matt Damon.

I wonder if Minnie M. (Damon) Wright and Matt Damon are actually related.

Tracing the Damon family tree: to be continued…