What is an obituary?
An obituary is a short article that appears in the newspapers announcing that someone has died. Often it will include minor details about their life and death, such as their date of birth and the date they passed away, where they died and perhaps even details about surviving relatives. It is common in obituaries or obits, as they are often referred to amongst those in the newspaper business, to see phrases like “loving grandmother of…” or “father to…” as well as some of the more functional information about the deceased.
If the deceased ever held an important job or worked in the public eye, the writer of the obituary will often reference that in the newspaper article. Bigger celebrities will often get full articles written about them in the deaths and obituaries section of the local and national press. This fuller article reads like a catalogue of their greatest achievements, and often reveals touching stories about their personal or family life. Rather gruesomely, most newspapers have obituaries for major celebrities already written and on file, just waiting for the day that their death is announced!
Obituaries will often appear in the same section of local and national papers as the death notices, birth notices and marriage announcements. You can often see “In Memoriam” announcements too, when family members will post notices remembering a deceased loved one’s birthday or the day they died. These are a helpful extra tool if you are searching archives for a particular name; the initial death notice or obituary may not show up, but you could get a hit on the “In Memoriam” section and find out information on the deceased person that way.
Death notices are similar to obituaries, but are often much shorter and just give the basic facts about the deceased person’s death; the date, whether they had been ill or the death was sudden and whether they died at home or in hospital. This section of the newspaper is also used to advise local friends and family of funeral arrangements, such as the date and time of the service and whether to buy flowers or if relatives would prefer a donation to be made to a local charity. If someone died of cancer, for example, it can be quite common to see death notices and obituaries ask those who knew the deceased person to make a donation to a cancer charity rather than bringing flowers to the funeral or memorial service.
Why search on obituaries?
Obituaries and death notices are a very simple way to establish if someone you know has died. Perhaps you had lost touch with a friend or family member and are trying to track them down – an online search of their name might well bring up hits in the death announcements section of their local newspaper. There can be various reasons why you might want to try and find out if someone is deceased or not, rather than just a general search for people you have lost touch with. Some individuals might only start searching for deceased relatives if they think they are due something from the inheritance; not a very pleasant reason to take an interest in the fate of friends and family, but the fact is that money is often the only incentive that will encourage people to take an interest in the fate of those they used to be close to. Many older people make a habit of scouring the death announcements page of their local newspapers to check and see if any of their old friends have passed away that week!
Newspaper obits can also be a huge help to those who are researching their family tree. The fact that so many of these articles are widely available on the internet, in local libraries or even at the publication’s offices themselves in newspaper archives makes them a great resource and you can sometimes get much more information than you were expecting. Whether you search for death notices of obituaries, many of these don’t just contain basic details like the name, date of birth and date of death, but also include other facts such as where the deceased person was living at the time they died, where they were originally from, the names of relatives that they leave behind and sometimes even information about the job they did, especially if they had a role that put them in the public eye at all. There are no rules about what can and cannot be contained within a death notice or a newspaper obituary as the article is often paid for by the family themselves. They can choose to make it as long or as short as they like, depending on how much they want to spend, and therefore different obituaries will provide different amounts and types of information.
Some people might be trying to find out if someone is actually deceased for a more sinister reason. There are some rare cases where people have taken over the identity of dead people in order to commit fraud or to hide their own identity. Perhaps as an employer you are suspicious about the past of one of your employees or maybe you are worried that a new partner is hiding something about their past from you. By searching on their name and their claimed date of birth you could discover that their whole identity has actually been a lie. The chances are that if they have committed this kind of identity fraud, then their own identity has been compromised in some way. They could have a criminal record, or owe someone a great deal of money. Whatever the reason, it is a criminal offence to steal someone’s identity, whether they are dead or alive, and if they have lied to you about something as important as their name, then you probably can’t trust anything else they have told you.
How to search newspaper obituaries
Most local libraries will keep back copies of newspapers on file in their building, which can then be searched for the name you are looking for. Alternatively you can always go and search the actual newspaper archive for any reference to the name you are interested in. Reading through newspaper edition after newspaper edition can take up a lot of time, but if the death notice you are looking for is potentially quite old, then you may not have any other alternative. The staff at the library or at the newspaper offices may be able to give you some tips and guide you to the right area, and they will hopefully have a detailed cataloguing system which will help you out, but those researching their family tree should be prepared to out in a lot of hours flicking through old copies of their local paper.
If the obituary was in the newspaper recently, then the chances are you will be ale to carry out a search online. Even the smallest local newspapers have their own websites these days, with online editions created alongside their more traditional paper version. The same articles, adverts and even death notices and obituaries will appear in the online edition, and most of these also have their own search facility. Once you have accessed your local paper’s website, some of which might require you to enter your personal details in order to subscribe, it is a simple matter of entering the name or names you are searching for and waiting to see if you get any hits. If you get a death notice or a newspaper obituary in your search results then you know the person your are looking for has, sadly, passed away and you can take the next step which is to try and get hold of the death certificate which will contain more information. Carrying out a simple online search for a person’s obituary is a much quicker and cheaper process than searching for death records, and can often provide the searcher with just as much information. If the obituary is a detailed one, then the newspaper article can often provide more details than you would get from the official record anyway!