Why newspaper obituaries are so valuable for genealogy research

When it comes to researching family history, the obit is a treasure trove of information.

Genealogists hunt down a family’s history by using a wide variety of resources, from church records to census data to gravestones. Sometimes they have to get creative, poring through bank records and coroners’ reports. One thing never to forget when researching your family’s genealogy, though, is the humble newspaper obituary. Even a short, perfunctory obituary is one of the most important documents there is for providing crucial information, often leading to important research breakthroughs.

Philip Sutton, a genealogy librarian at the New York Public Library, tells Legacy: “Obituaries help researchers identify female ancestors married names. A daughter listed in the 1940 census by her maiden name, for instance, may be listed by her married name in a parent’s obituary years later.”

Diane Haddad, editor of Family Tree magazine, points out how information in an obituary can open up a research rabbit hole abroad: “An immigrant’s obituary may give the name of the European town or village where he was born, so you can start tracing your family there.” Irene Walters and Joy Oria of the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston found another rabbit hole an obituary can lead you down: “[It] can lead you to other records. If it mentions a church membership, look at church records; if it gives locations the deceased lived, you now have other places to look for records.”

Lorine McGinnis Schulze of Olive Tree Genealogy finds that an obituary can help broaden the picture we have of an ancestor we never met: “Some obituaries include details of a person’s life — when they settled in a specific area, what their hobbies were, any military service they were part of, and so on.” Cheryl Lang of the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Missouri also points to this important role of an obituary in family history research: “Where were they born? Where did they go to school?  Where did they work?  What fraternities did they join?  All of that nice juicy information that makes our ancestors more than just a name on a chart.”

This broader understanding of an ancestor, Sutton says, can point us toward new avenues of research to discover even more of our family tree: “Clues to other sources of information for the deceased might be suggested, professional, political, or religious affiliations for example.”

Gail Dever of Genealogy a la Carte noted that like many other kinds of records, obituaries aren’t necessarily 100% accurate: “A death notice is only as accurate as the person who provided the information. In the case of my great-grandmother’s death notice, her husband’s and her middle name were both incorrect. A corrected version was only published a full ten days later.” Walters and Oria agree: “Information is from those left alive, who were grieving and not necessarily concerned with complete accuracy.” So it’s important to take the information in obituaries with a grain of salt and try not to feel too dejected when it leads to a dead end rather than a research breakthrough.

But when those breakthroughs do happen, they can be so glorious. Our experts had stories to share of research breakthroughs that started with obituaries. We’ll let them tell their stories in their own words:

Diane Haddad: “One of my first big genealogy finds that got me started researching was my great-grandfather’s 1949 obituary. I used the information to find his death certificate and funeral record. My third-great-grandmother’s 1894 obituary in a local German-language newspaper gave me her maiden name and her birthplace in Germany. I found it using an index the local genealogical society created from newspaper death notices. And a distant cousin’s obituary in 1900 gave me a lot of interesting details about his life — including how his family believed the start of his medical problems was a head injury received in a fight. It also had a picture of him!”

Gail Dever: “The best obituary I have found is about my Scottish-born great-great-grandfather James Young who lived in Montreal and fought in the American Civil War and Fenian Raids in Canada. In fact, I found three obituaries.

“Knowing that obituaries are usually published toward the back of the newspaper, I easily found the very brief notice paid for by the family. Unfortunately, it offered little information beyond his date of death, age, and burial place.

“If I had stopped looking after finding the paid notice, I would never have learned he had been a prisoner of war in the United States and also fought in Canada.

“I reviewed every page in the newspaper.

“On page two of the same newspaper, I found a detailed obituary that explained how and exactly where he died and that he walked ‘as lightly as many men twenty years younger.’ It provided his photo, a list of family members, his date of birth, the year he arrived in Canada, what he did for a living, and his military service. The line, ‘He fought and bled with the Northern Army and went through the incredible horrors of the war prisons, Andersonville and Libby,’ opened the floodgates and led me in pursuit of his civil war service record, which listed the name and date of birth of each of his 11 siblings.

“I also looked at the newspaper published the next day and the day after the funeral, and I again hit pay dirt. The day after my great-great-grandfather’s funeral took place, the newspaper published an article that listed the names of the pallbearers and family and friends who attended. Those names, many of which were unfamiliar to me at the time, eventually helped me break down a few brick walls.”

Joy Oria: “I have a family photo from 1905 of a seated mother and father, Christina and George Waldham, surrounded by fourteen kids. Christina looks exhausted. The story I’ve tried to remember from my grandmother was they took in the kids of a neighbor or a relative after the parents died, effectively doubling their family.

“When I found the obituary for George, it neatly explained the situation, ‘Besides his own family he adopted seven children of his deceased sister, which he raised.’ It goes on to say two of the children preceded him in death, and then lists the five living children by name and current residence. The 1910 federal census lists six children as nephews and nieces living with the Waldham family, giving me those names to compare to the obituary from 1942. The obituary has the name of one child not on the 1910 census, one that I suspect was the oldest of the adopted children, and probably out on his own by 1910.”

Philip Sutton: “A researcher was trying to discover the maiden name of the novelist Ursula Zilinsky. He knew she was born in 1931, immigrated to the United States in 1949, to study at New York University, that she lived in Huntington Station, NY, and married her classmate Pieter Zilinsky.

“The date of immigration, 1949, and the later marriage, seemed to preclude me from looking at records that might describe Ursula’s maiden and/or birth name in U.S. censuses and marriage records. So, I searched for an obituary for Ursula. I could not find one. I then searched for an obituary for her husband. I did not find one for Pieter Zilinsky, but did find an obituary for one Tom Griessemer, a ‘birth control leader’ who died in June 24th, 1966. According to the Long Island Star-Journal (June 28, 1966, p.18) Griessemer was married to Winifred, and had two daughters, including one ‘Mrs. Pieter Zilinsky.’ I suspected this might be Ursula, but I needed confirmation, so I searched for records describing Tom Greissemer and chanced upon a ship’s manifest for Otto (Tom) Greissemer, 44, his wife Winifred, 31, and daughter Ursula Griessemer, 17, arriving at the Port of New York aboard the Merchant Ship Battory, December 6. 1948.

“So, a combination of known information, Tom (Otto) Griessemer’s obituary, and a ship manifest helped me identify his daughter the author Ursual Zilinsky’s maiden name, Griessemer.”

Lorine McGinnis Schulze: “I hunted for many years for the death of an ancestor who lived in Ontario Canada. He did not appear in the Death Registrations even though he died during a time period where registration was mandatory.

“I finally found his obituary and discovered that he died in Colorado (hence no death registration in Ontario) and his daughter travelled by train to bring his body back to Ontario for burial. That led me to Colorado records where I was able to obtain his death record and learn more details about his death, how long he had lived in Colorado and who he worked for while there.”

About the Author