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Obituaries, Death Notices, and Guides to Burial Places of Notables
Documents of death often breathe new life into historical and biographical research. This guide will get you started on your trip to the underworld.
Obituaries and Death Notices
An obituary is a published notice of a death printed in newspapers and other publications. They can vary from a few sentences in length up to a full page. Death notices tend to be briefer and are paid advertisements placed in newspapers by family or friends.
Obituaries provide an important tool to researchers by offering biographical information on individuals that may not be readily available elsewhere. In many cases, the obituary supplies the only biographical data extant on a person. For well-known and famous people, obituaries are useful in offering a contemporary perspective on a person’s life.
Death notices (also known as paid obituaries) normally appear on the bottom of obituary pages in American newspapers. Formerly, they contained only references to the survivors of the deceased and the date and location of the funeral services. In recent years their scope has expanded and, like obituaries, these notices often also include details on the deceased's education, employment, avocations, scholarly interests, and memberships in organizations and societies. A death notice normally appears the day after a death and may appear for several days following.
Using the Library’s Catalog
General instructions for locating materials are given in the Research Guide, How Do I Find a Book?. The following information is specific to the topic at hand.
In CATNYP, use the Subject or Word search including the word obituaries or death notices followed by the name of the geographical area:
Obituaries Pennsylvania Fayette County
Death notices New York
Occasionally these materials can be found under a different format, using a Word or Subject search such as:
Registers of birth Virginia Wythe County
Registers of births, etc. Alabama
Cemeteries United States
Where Obituaries and Death Notices can be found
The most common place to find both obituaries and death notices is in newspapers. The New York Public Library has a vast collection of newspapers published in the United States, both current and historical. These can be located through searching our catalog CATNYP either by a title search or by doing a keyword search for a town or city and the word newspapers:
Buffalo and newspapers
Obituaries and death notices can also be found in other publications, such as family newsletters, alumni news, trade publications, and other specialized periodicals. Professionals, scholars and members of societies and other organizations often will have a notice published in publications relating to his or her field.
It sometimes can be helpful to consult a guide or bibliography on obituaries and death notices and how to locate them. One such useful bibliography is Betty Jarboe’s Obituaries: A guide to sources. This book lists major works and indexes of obituaries by state or country in which the obituary was published. Other titles similar to Jarboe’s book can be located through a search in CATNYP for the terms Obituaries and Bibliographies or Guides
How to locate Obituaries and Death Notices
Obituaries and death notices are best located by looking up a person’s name in a printed index, an index on a database, a full-text database, or a website that compiles obituaries.
Many of the traditional printed indexes to obituaries and death notices have been supplanted by online resources, but there are still a number of indexes that are only available in print. Below is a list of some of the more heavily used print indexes to newspapers and specialized indexes for obituaries. You can find more printed indexes in the library’s catalog CATNYP. One popular online index, PERSI (available through the Heritage Quest database) can be used to locate death notices and obituaries reprinted in genealogical and historical journals.
Print Indexes to Newspapers
Specialized Indexes in print
New York Public Library subscribes to many databases that can help researchers locate obituaries and death notices. The most useful are our newspaper databases. Oftentimes obituaries can be located by entering a person’s name and week of death into the newspapers databases. The more heavily used newspaper databases are:
ProQuest Historical Database - This full-text databases contains major historical American newspapers such as the New York Times (1851-2003) and the Washington Post (1877-1990) among others. Also included in this database is the American Periodical Series which searched over 1,000 magazines and journals from 1740 up to 1940. There are handouts in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy (Room 121) on how to best searching methods for this database.
America’s Historical Newspapers - This resource allows users to search more than 1,000 U.S. historical newspapers published between 1690 and 1922, including titles from all 50 states.
The library provides access to many other newspaper databases in addition to the two listed above; you can see a list of these by clicking here
There are other databases and online indexes that will aid researchers in locating obituaries, such as genealogy databases and biographical databases. These databases will help you pinpoint the date of death, direct you to a source for an obituary or death notice, or provide you with the obituary itself.
Guides to Burial Places of Notable People
There are numerous guides to cemeteries and burial places of famous and infamous people that can be found in our collection. Some are national in scope such as Final placement: A guide to the deaths, funerals, and burials of notable Americans and Resting places: the burial sites of over 10,000 famous people which lists well-known people from a wide range of fields, from government to crime. Other guides focus on local celebrities, for example Permanent New Yorkers: An illustrated biographical guide to the cemeteries of New York. Guides to cemeteries in other countries are available as well, for example Who’s buried where in England
Billets de sortie, by Robert Poulet. A compilation of French language obituaries on 20th-century literary figures.
Come to Judgment, by Alden Whitman. A collection of obituaries that appeared in The New York Times during the mid-20th century.
Obituary book, by Alden Whitman. Another collection from The New York Times from the 20th century.
Dead beat: Lost souls, lucky stiffs, and the perverse pleasure of obituaries by Marilyn Johnson (we don’t own this but branches have it)
Oxford book of death, an anthology of writings on death with a topical arrangement (e.g. hour of death, mourning, hereafters)
Selected Internet sites for guidance on finding obituaries and death notices
Legacy.com – This site allows you to search for recently published obituaries, a small fee is required to view most results.
Obituary Central – A database that searches for obituaries and performs cemetery searches.
Obituary Daily Times – A database of obituaries contributed to and updated by volunteers.
Obituary Links Page: State by state directory of obituaries & obituary resources
Obituaries Research Guide – A guide for online obituary indexes, death notices and other finding aids.
Obituaries Search – research guides for individual states.
Social Security Death Index – This index contains information on millions of deceased individuals with United States social security numbers whose deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration.