May 15, 2020
Obituaries tend to be one of the first sources genealogists seek when beginning their research. It’s not surprising that we are drawn to obits; for many folks they are the only biographical sketch available. However, once we get beyond looking at our direct ancestors, most of us are less apt to search for obits, and that’s a hole in our research that now is a good time to rectify.
While we’re all stuck mostly at home, many of us have more time than usual to devote to our genealogy. Some of us have been using that time to dig deeply into all sorts of online records. For others, including me, I find that immersing myself in major research right now is more than I can accomplish on many days. The stress of day to day living and the unrelenting dark news make it difficult to really concentrate. However, doing some minor research is a good way to escape some of the stress. Looking for obits for some of my more distant relatives has been filling the bill for me. It’s less messy than dragging out old paper files that get strewn all over the dining room and then abandoned when I get called away, and it’s less frustrating than starting on a research question such as trying to work on finding the maiden name of my third great grandmother only to run into a brick wall when I realize that I need a book that is only available at a library that is closed for the foreseeable future.
Although not all obits are available online, many certainly are, and looking for them is a short term project that can be interrupted and picked up again as motivation strikes. Plus, there’s the big benefit to having all of these obits for various collateral relatives. When I get back to serious research, one of the projects I want to tackle is to figure out how some of my DNA matches fit into my family tree. Having obits that give names of parents and children, including daughters’ married names, will definitely be helpful in figuring out who fits where.
Obits are available online at numerous sites including both free and pay for view ones. The free sites tend to include newspapers published before about 1923, so if you’re trying to trace a line forward, they may be of limited help. The free sites include many state historical newspaper sites such as the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (https://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.org/ ) and Utah Digital Newspapers (https://digitalnewspapers.org/). For anyone lucky enough to have ancestors from either of these states, these are fantastic resources; other state newspaper collections can be found by googling the state name plus historic newspapers. “Chronicling America” (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/) is another free site which is great for newspapers from all over the country.
For more recent obits, many libraries subscribe to the database “America’s Obituaries and Death Notices,” (https://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.denverlibrary.org/resources/?p=OBIT) which is available at home for library card holders. I use my library card from the Denver Public Library to access the database. The database only includes digitized obits for about the last twenty years, but its coverage includes most places in the United States. For tracing families forward, recent obits are very helpful. Another source for recent obits can be the websites of local funeral homes. You will need to know the names of local mortuaries to access this source, but googling funeral homes, particularly in smaller towns, is often a way to locate them. Again, these obits are only available for more recent times, but they can sometimes contain obits for people whose obits were not published in a local newspaper.
The three most popular pay-for-view newspaper websites are Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/), Newspaperarchive (https://newspaperarchive.com/) and GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com/). I’ve used all three of them and can recommend them all. All three of these websites offer free introductory trials as well as short and long term subscriptions. Recently, I’ve seen adds for longer than usual free trials to try to entice folks to subscribe during the quarantine. My favorite of the three is Newspapers.com; I like the ease of their clipping feature and the simplicity of saving articles, but the major reason to choose one website or another is, of course, which newspapers are available on each of them. While there is some overlap between the various sites (Note that they sometimes include the same newspaper titles, but for different time periods), each also has unique offerings so it’s definitely important to check before you subscribe.
Recently, I’ve been using all three websites plus various free websites as well since I’ve wanted to follow family lines through as many generations as possible using obits. It’s been an interesting project and has helped me build rough family trees for several heretofore unfamiliar family lines. It’s also been a great diversion on some of the long days at home.
Researcher/Director at Large