May 19, 2023

Looking for Obits in the Wrong Places

May 19, 2023

Genealogists love obits. For many of our ancestors, an obituary is the only biographical sketch of their lives we’ll ever find. Obituaries were published for most folks from the mid-nineteenth century forward.  The newspapers in which they were published are readily available either online or on microfilm at local libraries. Because of these facts, obits are usually easy to find.


Usually doesn’t mean always, however. Sometimes, an obit isn’t found because the researcher is looking in the wrong place. This often happens when the obit is for someone who died at an advanced age. Death records such as the Social Security Death Index and death certificates list where someone died. This leads a researcher to start looking for an obit in the locale where an ancestor died.


If the researcher can’t find an obit, he shrugs and gives up, assuming one was not published. For older folks, this assumption is frequently incorrect. Older folks often move to new locations to be near grandchildren or other relatives. They may move to a larger town during retirement to access more leisure activities or better medical care.


Recently, a researcher from outside Fort Collins asked me to look for an obit for a couple who’d died in Fort Collins approximately thirty years ago. The couple were each in their eighties when they died. Although they died at a time when most people had an obit, I couldn’t find one for either in the local newspaper.


The reason was simple. The couple spent their last five years in a senior living complex in Fort Collins. The rest of their lives had been lived in Evanston, Wyoming. They grew up on farms in that area and spent their working lives in Evanston. The wife was an elementary school teacher for thirty plus years in that town. They raised a family there, as well.


Their roots were in Evanston, not Fort Collins. It was logical that most of the people who knew them were in Evanston, and that’s where their obits were published.


Up until the last part of the twentieth century, obits were often published for free. At the bottom of an obit, a newspaper might publish a line asking other newspapers to copy the obit into their own papers. That was a way to cover all the areas where someone had lived. That hasn’t been the case in more recent years. Due to cost, most families now don’t publish an obit for a family member in more than one paper. They try to choose the paper where more people will be interested in their loved one’s passing.


For older folks, that is often the place they lived when they were working and raising their families, not the place they retired to. Keep this in mind when you’re looking for obits. It can be a helpful clue when an obit doesn’t appear where you think it should.


Carol Stetser