Obituaries are small notices or articles, generally appearing in newspapers, reporting a person’s death. They can contain information about surviving family members, biographical information, or other details about the person’s life and death. Not all deaths will be reported in an obituary.
It is commonly supposed that obituaries are readily available on the World Wide Web. This is not true, particularly in the case of older obituaries. While some more recent newspapers may be available online, most older newspapers are still not available freely on the Internet or in any digital format.
The exception to this is that your local public library may provide you free access to subscription databases that let you search newspaper obituaries. In particular, the company NewsBank has a subscription database that may make finding an obituary from the United States very easy.
NewsBank – America’s Obituary & Death Notices
This database may be part of another database from NewsBank called America’s GenealogyBank.
If you cannot find the obituary that you are looking for there, if your library does not have access to these or similar databases, or if you do not have access to a library, then you will need to find the newspaper in which the obituary was published and try to find the obituary in its archives.
This pathfinder or research guide on finding obituaries outlines the typical series of steps to take when attempting to locate an obituary. Remember, the following steps are simply suggestions, and you may find that your own search follows a different path or makes use of different sources.
Because most obituaries originally appeared in newspapers, searching involves some use of newspaper resources as well as some search strategies specific to obituaries.
For most obituary searches, the most important steps are:
- First, find the name and date of newspapers that did or might have carried the obituary.
- Second, locate a copy of the newspaper.
You can read about finding newspapers online in the IPL’s Frequently Asked Questions on the topic:
Before You Begin
It is a good idea, before beginning a search, to collect all the information you can about the deceased, his or her death, and the obituary itself. It is extremely helpful if you happen to know the exact date and name of the newspaper in which the obituary was published.
If you do know the exact date AND newspaper, skip the section about Finding the Name of a Newspaper and go straight to the section on Locating a copy of the newspaper.
If you do not know the exact date AND/OR newspaper:
You should gather what information you can. The following is typically the most useful information to know about the deceased:
- last name
- first name
- place of residence
- place of death (not necessarily the same as the place of residence)
- date of death (or general time period if no date is known).
One possible way to find out more information about a death is checking the Social Security Death Index. The Social Security Death Index should be used when you do not have specific information about a person’s date of death or possible place of residence. The information comes from the Social Security Administration, though they do not provide a way of searching it. Instead, other online sites offer an index of the information, such as the index at the genealogy site RootsWeb.
RootsWeb.com Social Security Death Index
While some sites charge for searches, searching this particular version of the index is free. This index does not provide the name of the newspaper carrying a particular obituary. However, if a search is successful, it will give you the dates of birth and death, the social security number, the state in which the social security card was issued, and the county in which the person last resided (which may or may not be where the obituary was published). It is also possible to order a copy of either the birth record or the death record through this site. The Social Security Death Index
Unfortunately, without information about when and where a person lived and died, it may be almost impossible to find an obituary. Remember, since most older newspapers are not digitized, there is often no simple way to search the papers for one article. You might need to continue searching other genealogy resources or talking to other family members or friends of the deceased to try and find additional details before you can proceed with your research.
Finding the Name of a Newspaper
Once you have as much information as you can get about the person or obituary, you can start to find what newspaper or newspapers might have published obituaries and when they might have appeared.
Many of the free sites on the Internet purporting to contain obituaries are useless. However, there are at least two with some substance:
This is an online database of published obituaries and some funeral home notices for the past 30 days. If you are looking for an obituary you know was published very recently, this is the first site you should try.
Obituary Daily Times
This is an obituary database that is updated by volunteer contributors. Access to the database is free. (It is also possible to subscribe, in order to receive e-mail messages about current obituaries.) This database does not actually contain obituaries, but will give you, if a search for an obituary is successful, the name and date of the newspaper which carried the obituary. If you have found this information, you are halfway to your goal and can proceed to Locating a copy of the Newspaper. Keep in mind, this database does not contain information on all obituaries published, just some, and obituaries listed tend to be only those published in more recent years. If you do not find the obituary you want here, you will want to keep searching elsewhere.
If you were unable to find the obituary in the previous sources:
You still need to find the name of the newspaper that carried the obituary. At this point, since you have no solid information, you will need to speculate. There are two possible locations for the newspaper(s) where an obituary might have appeared: the place in which the person died, and the place in which the person lived. There may be an obituary in either or both locations.
The next phase is to use either or both locations to find the name of a newspaper or newspapers that might have published the obituary. Many locations have several local papers that could have published obituaries, so you may want to try and find all possibilities. There are at least two good ways of doing this. Both may involve your own local public library.
- If your local library subscribes to it, you may be able to use a database called ReferenceUSA. Searching this database will give you a listing of newspapers and contact information, by city and state. If you have trouble finding your way through this resource, ask your librarian for assistance.
- You can consult a print guide called the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, which should be available at your local public library. This contains a list of newspapers and contact information, by location. Your librarian can assist you in using this guide.
Finding the Newspaper
For recent newspapers, a good place to start is the Internet Public Library newspaper collection.
This collection is organized geographically, and it is easy to see which newspapers are published in a given area . provided they have websites. Therefore, this list may not be complete. Newspapers vary in the amount of archived material stored on the website. If an obituary is recent, it might be available online. Otherwise, you might need to visit a library to consult older issues in print.
In general, newspaper archives are most easily found in public libraries, although sometimes they are found in academic libraries as well. To find out which libraries keep copies of the newspaper you are looking for, a good place to start is WorldCat
Using WorldCat, you can search for the name of the newspaper. You will get a list of libraries maintaining an archive of this newspaper, as well as list of the years available at each library. While the information in WorldCat is not always complete, it can be a good shortcut toward finding out what libraries own the newspaper in which you are interested.
Another way to find a copy of the newspaper you are looking for is to inquire at the public library in the home city of the newspaper. To find the name and contact information of any public library, use the American Library Directory 2003-2004, a print directory that should be available at most local public libraries.
When you contact the library, ask whether the newspaper is kept on file and in what format. Often, newspapers are saved in an electronic format or on microfilm or microfiche.
Some libraries will, for a fee, find the obituary if you can supply them with the newspaper and date. They may copy that page and send it to you. However, not all libraries provide this service, so a personal visit to the library may become necessary. The library might also be able to provide the names of other organizations that might have material useful to you in your search.
If you have no luck at the public library, the next place to try is the newspaper itself. You can find the newspaper using the contact information you previously found while looking up the newspaper, or you can look for the newspaper’s website through a search engine online. The IPL has a list of search engines and a web searching guide.
IPL’s Web Searching Guide
IPL’s Search Engines Subject Collection
In some cases, a newspaper might be willing to provide copies of articles for a fee if you know the exact date on which the article was published. Not all newspapers, however, offer this service.
You may also want to consult your own local library for additional assistance. You might find that your own library can help you learn about other local organizations that have helpful material. Your library might also be able to help you identify or contact institutions owning the newspapers you want to access.
Finally, you should be aware of the Internet Public Library’s genealogy and newspaper collections:
Genealogy Reference Collection
You might find these useful in your search for an obituary.
Pathfinder created by Glenn Modell. Revised by Jen Lau-Bond and Michael Galloway.