The Great Obituary Hunt: A Genealogy Research Guide
Like all good detective work, genealogy research benefits from organization, patience, and procedure. One of many tools in the researchers toolbox is the obituary. Obituaries are small articles in a newspaper that offer a posthumous piece of the story of a person’s life. They can also be very useful to those who are researching genealogy, adding details that would otherwise be unknown. The names of relatives, location of birth, final resting place, occupation, religious affiliation, volunteer work, and other details of how someone spent their life are but a few examples of the wealth of information that can help a researcher or genealogy hobbyist flesh out the details of the life of someone from the past.
A great place to start finding obituaries is in digitized newspapers by searching the names of the deceased. One helpful database is ProQuest Historical, which contains newspapers for many major American cities, often the full run of the newspaper. Major newspapers in this database include the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post. The London Times has its own database. But even with all this access, the problem that often occurs with big city papers is a lack of obituaries. Papers such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times often only run obituaries for prominent people, such as this obituary for Albert Einstein.
Smaller newspapers, such as town, neighborhood, and religious affiliation newspapers, do a much better job at chronicling the deaths of the citizens of their communities. The Chronicling America website, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, features thousands of digitized local newspapers that you can search for free. The site also includes the extremely useful U.S. Newspaper Directory, where you can determine exactly what newspapers were being published in an area during a specific time period, and the newspaper’s location if it is not digitized. Chronicling America is an expanding project, so you can expect to see it grow with more digitized newspapers as time passes. There are also several papers covering New York towns throughout New York state digitized in the free website Old Fulton Postcards. For help locating these types of newspapers at NYPL, please see this blog post for researching historical newspapers.
New Yorkers might be particularly interested in searching papers like the Staten Island Advance, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and Bronx Home News, as well as the dozens of other specialized local papers listed in the Periodicals and Microform Division’s list of New York City Newspapers. Note that there are also papers for particular neighborhoods, such as Harlem and Greenwich Village. Various ethnic and immigrant populations are represented in papers like the Irish World and Swiss American, and there are newspapers in different languages, such as the Amerikai Magyar Nepszav for Hungarian Americans and El Diario La Prensa, the largest Spanish language newspaper of New York City (and oldest, if you include its predecessor, La Prensa, which the library has holdings that date back to 1917). For research in recent ethnic newspapers, you can also use Ethnic Newswatch, which has periodicals that date from 1990 to the present year.
It is also possible to search for obituaries in newspapers that are now defunct. NYPL has several historical newspaper databases featuring older publications, including many from the colonial era. Many people start this type of search with America’s Historical Newspapers. Another interesting approach is to search for obituaries in trade journals — for example, Library Journal publishes obituaries for librarians who have passed away. You can find trade journals for many types of professions, from farmers to pharmacists. Many of these are searchable in databases, such as JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, and American Periodical Series.
Another tactic for locating an obituary is to find an index for the obituaries that appeared in a certain area. Obituaries are usually published in the week following a person’s death, but they can sometimes be published weeks or months afterward. An index can help you locate an obituary that was not published immediately after a person’s passing. Sometimes these lists are compiled into books that you can locate in the Library’s Catalog, such as this index of Dutchess County obituaries. You can also check for birth and marriage announcements as you search for obituaries. For example, this index to the Queens County Sentinel includes birth, marriage, and death announcements. Sometimes genealogical and historical societies will compile these lists and publish them in their periodicals. You can find those by searching JSTOR or PERSI, which is accessible through the HeritageQuest database.
If you are unable to locate an obituary, you might try to obtain a death certificate. In New York City, you can use the online death index and then contact the Municipal Archives for a copy of the certificate. For other locations, consult the Red Book or Handybook to find where these vital records are stored in the United States, or the International Vital Records Handbook for other countries.