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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Game On! A Brief Genealogy & History of the Super Bowl

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post—on the 47th anniversary of football’s first Super Bowl—Scott searches old newspapers to find stories about the beginnings of this uniquely American sporting event.

While there are older football bowl games such as the Rose Bowl (which just played its 100th game, and where I am happy to report “my” team, the Spartans of Michigan State, won), to most football fans worldwide the real “Granddaddy” of them all is simply known as the Super Bowl.

Today, January 15th, marks the 47th anniversary of the first-ever Super Bowl championship football game. This distinctly American sports/cultural phenomenon began 15 January 1967, when the NFL’s Green Bay Packers beat the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 to win Super Bowl I.

photos from football's first Super Bowl, Boston Record American newspaper article 16 January 1967

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 January 1967, page 4

But wait, you might say that there had to be football champions before 1967! Indeed there were—and here is the genealogy of what has now become one of the biggest sporting events in the world, a huge commercial success and, according to some sources, the second-largest day for food consumption in the United States behind only Thanksgiving (good thing the Super Bowl is #2 since Thanksgiving is my personal favorite holiday and I am glad it is still #1 in something).

Brief History of Professional American Football

So when did professional American football start? The National Football League (NFL) as we know it has existed since 1920. However the first “pro” football player goes back far beyond that year. The first professional football player was a standout athlete from—of all places—Yale University, and was named William (Pudge) Heffelfinger. In 1892 he received a $500 payment from the Allegheny Athletic Club to play against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

You can read about football’s first “pro” in this entertaining article from a 1982 Ohio newspaper.

Family Will Get a Kick out of Pro [Football] Hall of Fame, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 April 1982

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1982, page 85

But now back to the Super Bowl.

For decades before the first Super Bowl, the NFL fought off many competitors. However, in 1960 a new league, the American Football League (AFL), presented itself as a serious and strong competitor to the NFL. Competition between the two football leagues got downright nasty at times, as you can see in this 1960 Texas newspaper article.

Angry AFL Sues NFL for 10 Millions, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 June 1960

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1960, section 2, page 1

In 1966 the two leagues agreed to merge, effective 1970. It was also decided that the two competing leagues would play for a championship at the end of the season, and both sides agreed that this competition would continue after the merger.

How Did the Super Bowl Get Its Name?

Believe it or not, it was an 8-year-old girl who had a significant role in naming that first championship game in 1967, after the completion of the1966 season, the “Super Bowl.” This nugget of football history was something I did not know until I read this 1977 article from a Virginia newspaper. It seems that the daughter Sharron of the then-owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt, was playing with a Super Ball and suggested to her father that the football championship game be called the “Super Bowl”—and so the name of the game was born!

story about how football's Super Bowl got its name, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 November 1977

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 November 1977, page 80

The First Super Bowl

Right off the bat (or, more appropriately, the arm of Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr) the Super Bowl was BIG! On the day of the game, the headline in this 1967 Massachusetts newspaper blared: “Super Sunday—Here At Last!” The news article wondered: “Will it be the SUPER BOWL or the BLOOPER BOWL?” I guess we all know the answer to that! It was a success, as told by the fact that this year we will witness Super Bowl XLVIII.

Super [Bowl] Sunday--Here at Last, Boston Herald newspaper article 15 January 1967

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 January 1967, page 63

I did get some surprises when I read this 1967 article from a South Dakota newspaper. It seems that everything about that first football championship game was not immediately “super.” The article reported that: there were some 30,000 empty seats at the first Super Bowl; not one, but two, television networks (NBC and CBS) televised the game; and “the price scale was too high for the average fan. Tickets ranged from $6 to $12.” Contrast this with the current prices listed by the ticket reselling website StubHub! for Super Bowl XLVIII: tickets range from $2,524 for a single seat in the upper end zone to $525,022.50 for a “level 6 suite”!

stories about football's first Super Bowl, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 16 January 1967

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 16 January 1967, page 9

The Super Bowl Becomes Super Profitable

Beginning from a somewhat less-than-super start, the Super Bowl has now fulfilled its promise and practically become a national holiday in the U.S. The financial aspect of this legendary football event has become enormous. In 1977, just 10 years after the first Super Bowl, this North Carolina newspaper reported that Super Bowl XI was expected to result in an economic impact of “between $85 and $105 million.” (Last year the University of New Orleans estimated that Super Bowl XLVII resulted in a net economic impact of $480 million for the New Orleans area.)

Super [Bowl] Bash--Serious Business off Field, Greensboro Record newspaper article 7 January 1977

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 7 January 1977, page 20

Super Bowl Trivia

As you begin your preparations for this year’s Super Sunday and Super Bowl LXVIII, I suggest you might want to take a few minutes and have some pre-game fun with this trivia challenge from a 1990 Illinois newspaper. It has a dozen questions that just might stump even the most diehard football fan at your party.

Super Bowl Trivia, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990

Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 27 January 1990, page 14

From the same issue of the Chicago Metro News, these trivia answers were provided. Keep in mind these answers were current in 1990.

answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990

Share Your Super Bowl Story

Were you at the first Super Bowl? What are your memories of football’s first Super Bowl? Share them with us in the comments, and enjoy the game everyone!

Help Solve a Genealogy Mystery: Who Is Uncle L in My Old Photo?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott asks our readers for help in deciphering the writing on the back of an old photo identifying his “Uncle L.”

As I would imagine many of you do, I have some intriguing old photographs that unfortunately don’t have any identification on them. However, the one I have in my family history stash that makes me the craziest actually does have writing on it. The old black and white picture has a wonderfully clear full sentence on the back, which identifies my father around the age of 2 or 3 and—here is the kicker—a second, older fellow identified as Uncle L. Uncle L?

photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle

From the author’s collection

Yep! The old family photo is as clear as a bell (as you can see here), except for the name of this mysterious uncle!

back of photo of Scott Phillips's father and uncle, showing inscription

From the author’s collection

Every so often I pull that old photo out and try again to identify this mysterious member of my family that I know nothing about. As my family tree continues to grow, becoming more refined and better documented, I keep hoping for a breakthrough. So far though, I have had no luck in identifying this Uncle L. I brought that old family photo out the other day and decided to try some lateral thinking via GenealogyBank.com and its newspaper archives.

To me the handwriting on the back of the photo might be read as Uncle “Lew” or “Len.” Unfortunately there is no Lew or Len in any of my Dad’s immediate family, nor his father’s family. So I branched out to look at some relations of my grandmother’s who lived nearby.

I began my genealogy research with the knowledge that the passenger list from Ellis Island shows my grandmother coming to America to live with her brother-in-law Thomas Martin. He happened to be living on the same street as she and my grandfather would later live on for decades. I still have many warm and wonderful memories of that home from my youth.

My new search began with this brother-in-law and fellow traveler, Thomas Martin. I learned many interesting facts about him from GenealogyBank’s newspapers, such as his job as a lamplighter—which conjured up many images of a great job, until I thought of winter and rainy evenings—and his later job as a street car motorman. However, nothing I found about Thomas helped me identify my mystery uncle.

So I broadened my search on the Martin surname and it wasn’t long before I discovered that a descendant had married a Starr family member related to Floyd Starr, the founder of the amazing Starr Commonwealth for Boys in Albion, Michigan.

Starr Commonwealth--the Miracle Home--Is Rebuilding Many Boys, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 16 November 1919

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 November 1919, page 14

While I truly enjoyed reading this old news article, which provides a great history of the charitable youth program, it still offered me no one with a given name that comes close to my mystery uncle’s name.

I branched my researching out some more and soon found another family member farther down the street, the Newell family. The Newell family matriarch, Marjorie, was another sister of my grandmother’s, so the search was back on. I discovered lots of interesting information about Marjorie in the newspaper archives, such as her old marriage announcement.

Marjorie Cottle Becomes Wife of T. J. Newell, jr., Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 May 1944

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 May 1944, page 47

While offering good genealogical information on Marjorie, this historical marriage announcement also led me to another interesting story about her soon-to-be brother-in-law being awarded the Purple Heart after an air raid in WWII.

Hero, Minus Foot, Is Glad He Did Bit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 July 1943

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 July 1943, page 1

However, once again I had nothing that solved my mystery about Uncle L.

I moved on to the last family member who lived in the States. This was my grandmother’s brother Thomas Cottle who lived just a couple of blocks away. I searched his family, his wife’s family the Morrells, his wife’s brother Wilbert, and his brother-in-law’s wife’s family the Ricks. Again I gained much useful information for my family tree, but my mystery uncle remains just that.

While I refuse to call this treasured family photograph a brick wall, I am back to staring closely at the photo and analyzing the name. Does it begin with an L, a T, or possibly even a script Q?

What do YOU think? Take a good look yourself, post a comment and let me know…PLEASE!