Obituaries, an Often Overlooked Source


Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

When doing research, do not overlook obituaries. They can provide the key to open a door in your brick wall. I recommend that you print two copies of the obituary, one to file and one to write all over. You will also want to develop a structured research plan before you begin. Some people like to use a spread sheet, some a grid. Whatever you use be consistent or you may miss a key fact.

First, take the time to read the obituary more than once. On the one hand, as you glean the obituary for hidden clues and pertinent information, remember that this information may not be totally accurate as it was provided by family members who may or may not have had the exact facts. However, it may lead you to a wealth of new information on the person that you are researching. Now using your research plan, you are ready to take it apart methodically.

Look at all the names listed and their relationship to the deceased. Do you have all of these folks in your database? You might want to separate them out into family groups. Look particularly for clues to maiden names such as brothers of the deceased.

Next look at addresses listed for family members. Did the person that you are researching ever live in that location? If so, this may provide you with a whole new set of sources to review such as city directories, newspapers, church records or local histories. You should consider contacting the local historical society to see what they might have for records. I see a road trip in your future.

Look at any organizations that the deceased belonged to. This may lead you to records that provide additional facts. Is there a church listed in the obituary? If so, you will want to contact the church that the deceased attended at the time of their death as well as any that they may have attended in their younger years. What was the deceased occupation? Did he or she belong to any professional organizations related to their profession?

What funeral home was in charge of the services? If it is still in business, you may be able to contact them for additional facts. If it is no longer in business, check with the local historical society to determine who might have the records.

Were there any unusual circumstances to their death, such as an auto accident? Local newspapers may give facts that you will find no other place.

I offer as an illustration a recent research project that I worked on. I was researching a Swedish family and was totally unable to find the family in the Swedish emigration records. The person that I was looking at had a common American surname. After searching for and finding him in the Federal Census records, I noted that he had a sister living with him. I searched the Lakeview Cemetery Records and was able to obtain death dates for the man and his sister. I also found their obituaries that listed another brother living in Jamestown. I found his obituary that listed the other two siblings. Now armed with the first names and birth dates for the three siblings, I dug back into the Swedish emigration records and found all three of them with a distinctly Swedish surname. Checking the Swedish church records confirmed that they were indeed siblings and I was able to trace the family back several generations. Without the obituaries, I would not have had the information that I needed. Interesting fact…they had selected the name of the street where they lived as their surname.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to and visit Janet’s own web page.