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The Obituary - Final Tribute Clues

1499 printing press
An Early Gutenberg Printing Press

The richest source of family tree information just might be the obituary of the deceased. Let's look at how these final tributes have evolved, and how they can help the genealogist, shall we?

The earliest known obituaries were published in Roman times, ca. 59 BC under Julius Caesar. Newspapers printed on papyrus listing the Daily Events (Acta Diurna) were published daily and included announcements about births, deaths, weddings, and crimes for "notable people." They were also posted on whitewashed boards in market places. Sadly, there have been no preserved examples, we just know about them from ancient writings.

Fast forward (you should forgive the expression) 1500 years to the invention of the printing press and mass publication when distribution began of newspapers and books, but only the rich and famous had death notices printed. Detailed obituaries were not yet common.

North and South Civil War illustrations

The US Civil War brought about the custom of writing obituaries.

We have all felt the pain of researching (Civil War) service records looking for "John Smith" and trying to determine if this was MY John Smith. Imagine trying to keep track of your loved one far from home. The obit became the way of identifying if your John Smith was one of the 620,000 people killed in action. The obituaries of the time included brief family information.

Detailed feature obituaries became popular in the later part of the 20th century. Newspapers and news organizations collected facts and photos of famous people in advance of their deaths to be ready as soon as possible to break the news. These were called "morgue files" and efforts are underway to alexmillos

preserve these old photos that can date back into the 1890's. See the link at the bottom of the page for more info about these collections.

Now that we are in the digital age, newspaper obituaries are extremely expensive to publish. It has become customary to publish the full obituary of your loved one in the Sunday paper before the services, or even just a few lines pointing you to the online version.

If you are unable to find an obituary in or (or you don't have a subscription), search for FREE at Google for the deceased with the info that you do know like this: "John Smith"+obit+Indiana (where you think they might have died)+(birth year, or death year). Your local library or genealogy society may have newspaper archives you could also search for newspapers that are not online. Give them a call or a lookup on the internet.

The online obituary may be the greatest blessing so far in this modern age for genealogists. Families of the deceased can upload as many photos or images as they like. There is no limit, apparently, of how many words you can include in your family member's life story, and they will often include the names of the extended family members and where they live.

Some people have written their own obituaries and there are a number of side-splitters that can be found if you are bored by googling "funny obituaries." I have some links at the bottom of the page to save you some time, you may also find some revenge-type obits where the survivors get to vent about their not so near and dear. Here's a clip from one, full link below:

"...(He) was surprisingly intelligent, however he lacked ambition and motivation to do anything more than being reckless, wasteful, squandering the family savings and fantasizing about get rich quick schemes. (His) hobbies included being abusive to his family, expediting trips to heaven for the beloved family pets and fishing, which he was less skilled with than the previously mentioned. (His) life served no other obvious purpose, he did not contribute to society or serve his community and he possessed no redeeming qualities besides quick whited (sic) sarcasm which was amusing during his sober days."

people researching with computers

If you're not a great Googler, the major player in funeral homes and online obituaries is Service Corporation International, and their online obits are found at Dignity You can search by date, including the last 24 hours, date of birth (1900's is the earliest), and by US State or Canadian Province. has thousands of postings and a lot of them have great extras attached. But the beginning genealogist must use caution when viewing the "obit included" hint in your family tree program. Very often the "obituary" contains no grave information at all ("exact location of grave unknown"), or contains no documentation, not even a headstone photo. There are great memorials there that contain the actual obit, the gravestone photos, links to the death certificates, etc. that provide direction for further research. But beware any "attached" descendants or spouses without documentation. There seems to be a wild desire to get to be the first one to post death info there, especially of notable people, even with inaccurate or incomplete details. You must double check your info as you would any other document you retrieve while doing your family tree.

cartoon yellow smiley face big eyelashes

My new short term goal has become writing my own obituary. Not that I am anticipating an immediate need (knocking on wood) but the ability to get in the last word does seem tempting, and I want to be sure the genealogy is correct! I am fairly confident at this point that there will not be an attempt at vengeance (again knocking on wood).

Symbols of Hannukkah including menorah and dreidls

We have entered the back end of the year! NOW is the time to plan your genealogy gifts for the holidays!

Thinking about snowy weather almost makes it feel cool, right?

green and white xmas gift with red bow

Order those DNA tests, gather family stories and photos, and start making your plans. At the time of this posting, there are only 91 days till Hanukkah and only 109 days left till Christmas!

Ongoing good wishes for your research, send me an email for a free peek at your brick wall to

Thank you,

Leslie Ryan

No compensation is received for any links or referrals herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading links:

Photo morgue collections/archiving

Funny obituaries


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