Obituaries can be a major source of information for Family History research.
While death notices may simply state the name of the deceased and the date of death, many obituaries include much, much more. Obituaries may include the name of the deceased, the date of death, the place of death, the location of services, the place of burial, and the names of surviving relatives. Some even include the names of the parents, the place of birth, the age at time of death, the cause of death, the names of predeceased relatives, the names of organizations and churches to which the deceased belonged, the names of schools attended, employment history, the deceased’s hobbies, and information about the deceased’s military service.
Unfortunately, the newspapers where relevant obituaries can be found are not always readily available.
Fortunately, online newspapers have made searching for recent obituaries much easier, and many online newspapers offer free access to the most recent obituaries in their files. The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, for example, offers free online access to obituaries for 30 days. Obituaries older than that can be accessed for $1.95 each. Simply searching the archives is free and, in the case of the Telegram & Gazette, other articles such as news articles, wedding announcements, real estate transfers, school honor rolls, and letters to the editor will also be searched. Researchers only need to pay to see the full text of the selected articles.
But, I’ve found, the price of $1.95 per article can add up, especially if one purchases articles and obituaries that appear to be relevant, but aren’t.
Luckily, there’s ProQuest. Many public libraries provide online access from your own home to the ProQuest databases. For me, I just have to browse to the San Francisco Public Library website and log onto the ProQuest database using my San Francisco Public Library card number. A search using the terms “Danko” and “Worcester” brought up 22 hits, including 10 obituaries of my relatives and 3 other articles mentioning my relatives. Moreover, I was able to read the full text for free.
The ProQuest databases available through the San Francisco Public Library include hundreds of newspapers from across the country and around the world. The dates covered in the databases vary from newspaper to newspaper. Some go back only a few years, but others cover decades. The New York Times historical database is comprehensive and covers all issues of that newspaper from 1851 to 2004 (more recent dates are included in the non-historical database with the other newspapers).
Even if a researcher doesn’t live near a library with a subscription to ProQuest, all is not lost. Any California resident may obtain a San Francisco Public Library card for free, but applicants must apply in person at any San Francisco Public Library location. Similar arrangements may be available with other libraries and in other states.
ProQuest doesn’t include everything, however.
A large number of small town newspapers are available through SmallTownPapers where researchers can read the current edition of many small town newspapers for free. Archives of these newspapers can be searched through World Vital Records and Footnote.com (both subscription websites).
NewspaperARCHIVE (a subscription website) boasts 74.6 Million Pages for 709 Cities, 239 Years, and 2,717 Titles of historical newspapers. WorldVitalRecords has acquired this collection and is gradually making the content available on their own website.
GenealogyBank (a subscription website) claims that over 26+ million obituaries in their American Obituaries Collection (1977 to present) including over 1,000 U.S. newspapers “make this the most complete collection from the 20th and 21st centuries”. The GenealogyBank Historical Newspapers Collection (1690-1977) “includes 106+ million articles, obituaries, marriage notices, birth announcements and other items published in more than 500,000 issues of over 2,300 historical U.S. newspapers”.
ObitsArchive (a subscription website) claims to be “the largest and most comprehensive collection of newspaper obituaries and death notices in the United States”. Researchers can purchase articles individually for $2.95 or they can subscribe for a recurring monthly charge.
Ancestry.com (a subscription site) includes their Obituary Collection with over 9 million obituaries from hundreds of newspapers obtained from online sources. Most of the obituaries are from the last few years. Ancestry.com also includes a Historical Newspaper Collection and a new Historical Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements Collection, 1850-2003.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of online sources for obituaries and newspaper articles. Consider it a springboard from which your search for obituaries can be launched.
Update 31 Jan 2008:
Randy Seaver and Drew Smith recently wrote on similar topics. Randy wrote Finding Newspaper Web Sites and Drew wrote Home-grown obituaries and online newspaper databases.
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen J. Danko