Obituaries and Genealogy

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Obituaries, though often fairly short pieces of prose, provide a wealth of information about the deceased.  Obituaries generally at least provide the names, dates of death, funeral arrangements, and short biographies of the deceased.  As the printing process became more efficient and newspapers became a more common commodity, obituaries grew longer and more detailed, and more and more people had notices of deaths published in newspapers.  Whether a simple one liner or a full-length article, obituaries provide a significant amount of information about the deceased individuals; this information is of great use, especially for genealogy.

Genealogy is the study of familial lineage and history, or the study of ancestry.  Through a variety of resources including census data, historical records, gravestones, genetic analysis, and obituaries, genealogists work to piece together family history.  In Western societies, historically, genealogy was a means to settle issues of legitimacy – claims to power and wealth were often based on an individual’s lineage.  Now, genealogy is a professional research tool as well as an obsession amongst amateurs.  Studies of genealogy provide an array of historical and scientific information and data.  By examining genealogical information, much can be learned about subjects including migration patterns, socioeconomic conditions, and religion.  Scientific information drawn from genealogical studies can help doctors and scientists better understand hereditary conditions and health patterns.  Individuals are often drawn to genealogy as means of creating and exploring notions of identity in relation to ancestry.  Many are interested in the stories of their ancestors and how they got to be where they are today. 

Amongst other resources, obituaries are invaluable sources of information for professional and amateur genealogists.  The details provided in obituaries can give insight into the deceased individual’s life and death and can lead to the discovery of other sources of information for further research.  Often, obituaries contain valuable information that cannot be learned elsewhere.  Details may include the names of other relatives, where they died, where they were born, maiden names, medical problems, professions, religious beliefs, political affiliations, etc.  These details can further direct research on family history and can help shape the life, and death, stories of the deceased.  For example, if an obituary states that your ancestor was an immigrant from a certain town, you can begin to search that town’s records for further traces of your ancestor and other family members, and you now know that individual must have had quite an experience leaving his home and immigrating to a foreign world.

Through obituaries, the deceased can become more than just names on a family tree.  Obituaries help paint a picture of the life lived by the deceased – what were they remembered for?  What qualities and traits stood out following their death?  Where did they live and go to school?  Were they married?  What accomplishments did they have?  The answers to questions such as these help individuals better understand their family stories, and help researchers understand broader historical and cultural narratives. 

However, genealogists must take the information found in obituaries with a grain of salt.  They are not always entirely accurate, and they may not lead to desired breakthroughs in research.  Obituaries are written following death by those that are still alive.  Details may be skewed by grief, fuzzy memories, and bias.  Often, the darker details of the deceased’s life are avoided, and the full picture of their life story maybe left incomplete.  Obituaries are just one of the, albeit potentially crucial, pieces to the puzzle of genealogical research.

Today, genealogical research is aided immensely by the internet.  Online databases of both modern and historical obituaries are available to professionals and amateur researchers.  Paralleling the recent obsession with genealogy, the search for obituaries online has become one of the most common on the web.

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