Genealogy: Finding an Obituary

Chris Seggerman, a member of State Library staff who works in the Genealogy collection gives us his tips and tricks for finding an obituary:

I look for a lot of obituaries in Arizona newspapers, but I also help patrons order newspapers through the State Library’s Interlibrary Loan department. News stories often try to answer the “Five Ws”:  “Who, what, where, when, and why”—but you can get by with only four of those in obituary searching.

WHO: Your ancestor. That’s the easy part. Well, unless you can’t find an obituary for your ancestor, and you’re trying to find an obituary of their parents or child or anything that will give you some clue about them.

WHAT: Their obituary. Or maybe it’s not that easy. Newspapers print obituaries, but if your ancestor was killed in a car crash, or in a disease epidemic, their death may appear as a news story and an obituary, or just as a news story. Older papers sometimes do not have a separate obituary section. The Arizona Republic, for example, had a “Death Notices” section in their classified ads which listed the information we now find in obituaries in a brief fashion. If the person’s death was of enough news value, it also ran in the local news.

WHERE: Put yourself into your ancestor’s shoes and picture what it would be like for them to get their newspaper. Start with the city they lived in. If that city does not have a newspaper, look to find a larger city nearby that may have also covered the same area.  Another strategy is to look at the county your ancestor lived in and check if the county seat has a newspaper.

This may take some further research about the nature of those cities: is your ancestor’s home a suburb of a larger city? Would a paper in a suburb give better coverage of an event happening there than the paper of the larger city?

Once I looked for news of an auto accident that happened in Glendale, which had killed a doctor. I checked the Arizona Republic—one of two large daily papers in Phoenix at the time– from the time period and found no mention of the accident—and not that much Phoenix news. At the time, the Republic seemed to focus on national news in its A section and local news in the B section. The accident and death made the front page in the Glendale paper.

Newspapers do change in their coverage, however. When I could not locate a more recent death—in the 2000s— death of a Glendale resident in the Phoenix paper, I decided to check the Glendale paper. By then, the Glendale paper barely had any obituaries, and what obituaries it did have were brief to the point they may as well have been death notices in the classified section.

Once you have located the possible newspaper, you need to get access to it. State Archives often have access to newspapers on microfilm. The Arizona State Archives has the best collection of Arizona newspapers, for example. However, historical societies, county libraries, and the newspapers themselves may keep a microfilm archive. When I look for a newspaper in WorldCat I also look to see how many copies of that paper are available, and who has them, as a clue to how hard it will be to get that paper.

Not all newspapers make it into WorldCat. If I don’t find a newspaper in WorldCat for the area I want, I personally try a county library, and suggest to patrons they contact the county library for the area they are researching. I check to see if the county library has a website, as those libraries sometimes have a separate page about their historical collections.

County libraries often focus on the history of their county, and may have specialized resources not indexed anywhere else. When I was looking for an obituary of an ancestor in Auburn, Nebraska,  I checked WorldCat, but found no newspaper listings for one that would have contained my ancestor’s obituary. However, a call to the county library not only got me a copy of that obituary, but the library had an index to local cemeteries that helped me confirm the date of death, which I had not known. That information made requesting a death certificate easier.

WHEN: This is the tricky part. When I look for newspapers in WorldCat, I pay very close attention to the date range of the paper.  Catalogers base their records off of the newspapers they have available, and sometimes those papers are not the first issue. I look to see what date range covers what volume and issue, and if my ancestor’s death falls outside of that time range, I look for two very specific items in the record: Preceding titles—newspapers that came before the newspaper I’m looking at—and succeeding titles—newspapers that came after that paper.

Cataloging records track each title change. Sometimes newspapers change titles without changing their volume and number, but the catalog record—and therefore the newspaper you want to order—will be different.

Another part of “When” to consider is if the newspaper comes out on a daily or weekly schedule. When I search for an obituary, I usually look on the date of death itself. Often times the death will happen before the paper has a chance to get the story in, but I want to make sure I’ve covered all bases on the off chance the death may show up there. If it’s a daily paper, I will look about a week or two after the date of death. Very seldom have I seen a death show up later, but once, it did not show up for about three weeks to a month later.

If the paper is a weekly, I usually check about three issues—or weeks—later. Weekly papers come out on a specific day, so they keep track of their news in a different fashion than daily papers. Deaths that occur near their publication day usually make the next available paper.

Also remember that information moves faster today than it did before: Another aspect of “when” is “When did the newspaper get the news?” I have a story of an ancestor who died by drowning, which the newspaper printed based on them receiving a letter by someone who saw the drowning—an eyewitness report from 189X—but consider how long it took that person to get home from what they saw, and how long it took them to write that letter, and how long it took for the paper to get that letter. If you manage to get a reel of microfilm containing a newspaper, you can get a good idea of how fast they gather and publish their news.


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