Newspaper Obituaries for Genealogy – Episode 73

This week in Elevenses with Lisa episode 73 we are talking obituaries and the important role they can play in your genealogy. Obituaries can reveal a lot of really interesting and helpful information about your ancestors! My guest is Shannon Combs-Bennett, the author of the article A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding and Using Historical Obituaries published in Family Tree Magazine

newspaper obituaries for genealogy

Episode 73

In Elevenses with Lisa episode 73 Lisa Louise Cooke and Shannon Combs-Bennett will discuss:

  • The backstory on obituaries (which is vital to understand about any genealogical record)
  • what they can tell you about your ancestors
  • where you can find them both online and offline
  • and strategies you can use when they aren’t where you expected to find them.

Episode 73 Show Notes 

(Please note: This interview transcription has been minimally altered for ease of reading and clarity.)

Lisa: I think of obituaries as being such a cornerstone of the work that we do. It’s often one of the first places people start, right?

Shannon: Yeah, it is, they’re pretty accessible for most people. Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper, though the further back in time you go. But they seem to be one of the basic, I guess you could call staples, bread and butter type documents that genealogists try to find.

Type of Death Records Found in Newspapers

(01:28) Lisa: Exactly. And we typically find them in newspapers. So, I’d love to start there. Because obituaries are not the only kind of death record we’re finding in newspapers, right?

Shannon: There are actually several different types of death records published in a newspaper.

Obituaries
Of course the obituaries, which are the most common.

Funeral Announcements
You can also have funeral announcements. So, you might not get the obituary, but maybe you can find the announcement that this funeral home is servicing this family or that this wake will occur at such and such place, or the religious ceremony will occur at this church with graveside services.

Card of Thanks
In addition to that, you sometimes can find what were called for a long time card of thanks where families would put articles in the newspaper, essentially, in the advertisement and personal sections, thanking people for coming and participating in the service of their loved one. 

So, there’s a wide variety of different types of information. And if you don’t know it’s there, you don’t know to go look for it.

Coroner Inquests 
Lisa: Exactly. I remember I was doing some newspaper research in the British Newspaper Archives, from my husband’s family. I didn’t find a death notice, but there was an entire coroner’s inquest published in the newspaper! And I didn’t realize that we could find something like that. So, it’s wonderful to see the depth of the kinds of information that surround the death of a person that could be found in newspapers.

Shannon: And those aren’t as common here in the United States. But if your loved one died in a larger city, you can sometimes find (coroner inquests) in the newspapers. I was doing some research and found in from San Francisco, and they have published books of coroner’s inquests, so they’re not in newspapers, but the announcement was in the newspaper that there was an inquest. Then I was able to go to the library and thankfully they were all digitized. I found them online where I would find all sorts of information about the person, their family, the circumstances of their death. And if you’re doing family medical histories, sometimes those can be real gold mines.

The History of Obituaries

(4:03) Lisa: So, let’s take a moment and talk about the history of obituaries. Because, as you know, when we understand the history of any kind of genealogical record, then we do a lot better job of utilizing it. Please give us a little bit of a background story on obituaries. How long have they been around?

 Colonial Times
Shannon: You can find obituaries in even some of the earliest colonial newspapers here in the United States. Sometimes they were passing through an area and died. Or you might see information that someone had died abroad and there might be a little note in the newspaper.

Early 19th Century
In the early 1800s you can see themes developing around newspaper obituaries. (And sometimes if it was a very important person to the community you’ll be more than likely to find it.) These early newspaper obituaries don’t always have a lot of family information, but you’ll find all sorts of virtuous prose written about them where they were talking about how godly and worthy they were and those types of things.

Then the obituary started to morph and actually became a part of the personal and advertisement section of the newspaper. So, one reason you may not find information in an obituary for your ancestor is because your family didn’t have the money to pay for the obituary to put be put in. And then if they weren’t a real prominent person, they wouldn’t get the prime real estate in the actual reading sections. So, yeah, if your family were on the poor side, you might not find anything about them, unfortunately.

20th Century
(06:06) And then, as the 20th century came in these started to evolve from a celebration of death to a celebration of people’s accomplishments. You start finding late 1800s into the early 20th century is how the obituary as we know it today started to evolve. It went from maybe one or two lines about a person dying to three and four paragraphs about them, their families, especially if they had, you been a pensioner or veteran, or a pioneer of a town, the early 20th century saw a lot of those people who had really struck it out west for their fame and fortune start passing away in those towns. Sometimes you would even find the obituary, not only in the place where they died, but in their hometowns back further to the east. You might find obituaries, especially for those pioneering folk you could call them, back where they came from.

Lisa: That’s a great point. And that’s really kind of a nice newspaper research tip that expands beyond obituaries. It’s that idea that people often started back east, but then relocated out west, and particularly with the telegraph coming into play, they could send that article back to where they came from and get it to all those people who would be interested to know whatever happened to that person.

Shannon: Right.

21st Century
Now in the 21st century we’re moving more and more away from print newspapers for the obituaries. We’re going to almost completely digital newspapers for the obituaries and digital obituary sites. I’ve had several of my close family members in the last 10 years who have passed away, and the funeral homes are offering to put obituaries on their websites. And when my mother passed away, I was speaking with the funeral home director, and they had kept records. This was in Texas. And they had records going back several decades with written obituaries that, if you called the funeral home, you could see if they had one written up. It was not even necessary published in the paper, because the family couldn’t afford it. But the funeral home had it.

Lisa: How interesting!

It really drives home the point that you’ve got to know what kind of timeframe you’re looking at right to see what you can find and where you’d expect to find it.

Obituaries in Small vs. Large Cities

(08:48) I would imagine it’s true that in small towns, you might be more likely to find obituaries then perhaps let’s say in Chicago.

Shannon: Yeah, because you know, everybody knows everybody, in a small hometown. Those would be more likely to have the longer, more in depth information written about a person talking about their family, and where they came from, what they did, if they were the pillar of a community, or even just a local farmer.

And then in the cities, unless you were a prominent citizen, that’s where you’re more than likely to find a paragraph or less, maybe only even a few sentences: first and last name, age, died on this date, and maybe that’s all you get, unfortunately.

Where to Find Obituaries in Old Newspapers

(09:39) Lisa: Let’s talk about where to find these Historical Newspapers. Where do we start?

Shannon: Okay. Well, there are a lot of different newspapers online.

Chronicling America at the Library of Congress
Of course, the Library of Congress Chronicling America is a great start. See if they have one of the local newspapers for the place that you’re researching for the timeframe your ancestors were there. Start there because it’s free – you got to start with the free resources first.

FamilySearch
Family search also has a free obituary, historical obituary site that you can search. (Ed. Note: this link will take you to a resource page at the FamilySearch Wiki which includes many links to sources for obituaries.)

And then you can move into the paid / subscription websites such as:

(Disclosure: Thank you for using these affiliate links. We will be compensated if you make a purchase and that helps support this content which we make available for free.)

(Ed. Note: Of course there are many other websites featuring obituaries, and some are niche websites unique to their location. Google searching can help you locate these resources. Learn more about my strategies for strategic googling here.)

Obituaries at Libraries

(10:36) Sometimes you can also contact the local library for the place the person had died. I’m originally from Indiana, and I’ve had good luck calling around to the various county libraries. Unfortunately, they don’t have a lot of the newspapers digitized. But for a small fee, they were willing to send me a photocopy. And in some cases, now I can get email PDFs for a few dollars. I like to support the local library, so I’m okay with doing that. Because our local libraries need a lot of support.

Don’t give up if you can’t find it digitized, is what I’m trying to say. There’s a lot of information to be found, and there are a lot of places out there, especially for older newspapers. Be resourceful I guess you could say.

Obituary Indexes

(11:29) Lisa: You talked about online indexes. So sometimes we don’t get the actual obit but we could get enough information out of the index that we could then go track it down in person.

Shannon: Yeah, that’s very true. I’ve used those several times. One of the links that is in the article is to the Dayton, Ohio index. And you can put in as much information as you know. Sometimes I find it’s easier to start with a little bit of information, and then sort through and add details to weed through the large number. But all it will give you is the person’s name and the date of publication, so not even the date of death (so you know it’s somewhere in that timeframe) and then the page, issue, column number so that you can contact the Dayton Public Library, and they can help get you the paper. And a lot of the libraries are like that.

Obituary Search Strategies

(12:29) Lisa: When you do online searches for obituaries, do you tend to just go straight in and do a search on the name? Or do you go into the card catalog and find newspaper and obituary collections first and then try to search? Do you have any special tactics that you use to try to make sure you’re successful?

Shannon: That’s actually a really great question. It depends. If I have a really unique name and I am pretty sure of the location, maybe timeframe of the death, sometimes I’ll just start looking for that person. Especially like I said, if it’s a really unique name.

Unique Names
I had an ancestor named Bathsheba Kelly. I’m thinking there’s not many people named Bathsheba. So I was pretty confident maybe if I just started looking for her by name and the timeframe she died in Ohio, we’d be good to go.

Other times, yeah, I first want to narrow it down by collection because you don’t want to just go searching willy nilly, right? That’s going to waste a lot of time. Try to find like a five year, maybe a 10 year span. If you’re not quite sure, having a timeframe will help weed them down.

Common Names
If it’s a common name, you need to add in a lot more. Maybe those advanced searches. It may take you going town by town, or year by year as you go wading through all the names.

Indexes
If there is an index for the database I do like to use those first because that can help weed out a lot of information right off the bat.

Printing
Print it out, write it down, keep it on a separate browser tab or whatever you need to do so that you can methodically keep track of your search.  That can really help. Don’t give up!

Obituary Publishing Timeframes

(14:54) Lisa: I know I had an experience once where I was searching a weekly newspaper in California on microfilm, and I knew that obituaries were always on page seven, because I’ve just had been through so many issues of this particular newspaper. I looked at the obituary column in the next issue following the death of my great grandfather, and he wasn’t there. And I was like, What? I looked at the next week and he wasn’t there, and I went back a week. I wondered if maybe I got the date wrong. It turned out his obituary was on the front page! And that goes back to us saying that some people were kind of considered the pioneer of their town, even though in the family, he wasn’t Mr. Celebrity or anything, but he was revered for that. And they had him on the front page.

I’d love to have you touch on when you don’t see them where you think you’re going to see them. And what’s the timing of when we could expect to see their obituary published? And do you have any other tips on when they’re not where you think they’ll be? What are the kinds of places within the paper where you tend to find these kinds of articles?

Shannon: Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. Again, it depends. Like you said, even if you don’t think that your family member was someone famous, if you’re not finding the obituary where you expect to find it, try going through the newspaper cover to cover.

Sometimes if your ancestor died in mysterious circumstances, there might not be an obituary, but there might be an article about a court case. So that’s always a good thing to know. Because those death records, especially if it was salacious gossip, is going to turn up somewhere.

Lisa: It’s newsworthy.

Shannon: That’s right. If it’s newsworthy, it’s going to be in there.

Where Obituaries are Located in a Newspaper

(16:46) I was recently doing some research on professional genealogists. I wanted to find out when genealogists became a profession here in the United States. I figured if an obituary of a professional genealogist told me they were 80 years old and when they died, then I can kind of backtrack to when, they started became a professional. I did not find these obituaries in the late 1800s where I thought they should be. Sometimes they were in the Personal section. Sometimes they were in the miscellaneous advertisement section. But then once again, it goes back to somebody had to pay the newspaper to put this in it. So, they wouldn’t be in these larger newspapers. I was looking at like the New York Times, The Hartford newspaper, the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. I wasn’t finding these obituary pages for them. I was finding obituaries in the Personal section, which kind of threw me for a loop a little bit.

Lisa: You kind of have to follow the money, right?

Shannon: Yeah.

Lisa: It’s so interesting that you’re talking about the history of genealogists, because I remember, quite a few years ago, I went to the census records. I started searching on genealogist as an occupation or the industry. That’s really interesting too to see who was doing it 100 years ago.

Obituaries were not always published the very next week after a person’s death, right?

Shannon: Right. A lot of people think that they are. I guess 1) it depends on the religion and the culture that you’re looking at –  what was done in that time frame. Or 2) it depends on the place. This might sound kind of odd to some of us who don’t live in really cold places, but when the ground freezes in our northern most states sometimes you wouldn’t be able to bury somebody until the next spring. And, and you may have a death notice when they died, but then a full obituary for when the service and the burial took place. So sometimes you may have several months gap in between when they died, and when information was published about them in the newspaper.

The other thing maybe, especially if they were in business, or if they traveled, or if they were in the military, they could have died abroad. So, you’re only going to hear the information see the death notice or the obituary when the ship lands.

Information Found in Obituaries

(20:00) Lisa: Before I let you go, I’d love to have you talk about the Obituary Fast Facts section in your article. What are some of the interesting facts and little bits that you want to share with us?

Shannon: Sure! Well, some of the things that you can find in an obituary can be surprising. As genealogists, we want to find all the family information we can. We want to know when they were born, who their parents were, if possible, family members, that type of thing. But other things that you can find in obituaries are :

Employment Information
employment information, which can then give you clues as to where else they might have been.

Migration Information
If they were a migrant, to that area, it can give you information, you know, where they originated from. If they immigrated to the Untied States, sometimes they list that they landed at the port of Philadelphia, or New York, or New Orleans, or wherever. And that can help lead information for passenger lists and future information.

Associated People
But most importantly, people who are listed in the obituary have to be somebody known to the deceased person, either a friend or a family, or a close acquaintance. I want to encourage people to not forget those associate people and collateral lines, because you might be able to find information about your ancestor while researching them.

Lisa: Great point! 

About Shannon Combs-Bennett

(21:30) Shannon, tell folks a little bit more about yourself and what you do.

Shannon: I’m an author, lecturer, and an educator, full time student – a perpetual student is what my father would call me. You can find me at my blog, which is Trials and Tribulations of a Self-Taught Family Historian. You can also find me on Facebook and LinkedIn and on Twitter, I’m not I’m not on Twitter as much as I used to be. I’ve spoken all across the United States. I’ve even spoken internationally in Scotland and in France for the Heraldic and Genealogical Congress. But I think that’s because I come from a background of teachers. I love educating, writing, lecturing and helping people learn more information about their pasts and about who they are and who their families were. It doesn’t hurt that my undergraduate degree was in human genetics. So sometimes I can throw a little bit of that DNA in there.

Lisa: Thank you so much for being on the show!

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Comments

Do you have a question about using obituaries for genealogy? Have you found something fascinating in an obituary? Tell us about it in the Comments below:

 

 

 

What’s a CentiMorgan, Anyway? How DNA Tests for Family History Measure Genetic Relationships

If you’re doing DNA tests for family history, you may see lots of predicted cousin matches: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc…..But what does that predicted genetic relationship actually mean? Learn about centimorgans, the powerful genetic genealogy unit of measure, and how it helps your research.

genetic relationships and centimorgans

How DNA Tests Measure Genetic Relationships

When we are looking at genetic relationships, there are also many ways we can measure them. But ultimately, we want the testing company to tell us how likely it is that a particular individual shares a single, recent common ancestor with us. One factor in this calculation is to take into account the total amount of DNA we share with that match.

Currently, all the testing companies are reporting this sum in centimorgans (cMs).  Every company reports to you the total number of shared cMs, as outlined below.

  • AncestryDNA: Click on the match to access the personal profile page for that match. In the second section, under Predicted Relationship, you will see the confidence level. To the right of the confidence level, you will see a grey circle with a little “i” in it. Clicking there will show you the total amount of shared cMs as well as how many pieces of DNA you share.
  • Family Tree DNA: On the main match page for your Family Finder results, you will see the total amount of shared cMs in the third column.
  • 23andMe: You can see the percentage of shared DNA from the main DNA Relatives home page. To convert the percentage into centimorgans, just multiply your percentage by 68 (that will at least get you close). You can also see total shared cMs in the chromosome browser tool (go to Tools > DNA Relatives > DNA).
  • MyHeritageDNA: The total amount of shared DNA is shown on the main match page under the title Match Quality. MyHeritage also has a new DNA Match Review page. Click here to read more about that.

Centimorgan: A Genetic “Crystal Ball”

It is very tempting to think of a cM just like you would think of an inch or a centimeter, and for all practical purposes, that is okay. But it is actually much more complicated than that.

A cM is actually more like a crystal ball: it helps us predict how likely a piece of DNA looks exactly as it did a generation ago. This, in turn, helps us calculate how far back we should be looking for the common ancestor between two people.

But for our practical purposes, you can use the total amount of shared DNA, in combination with this chart compiled by Blaine Bettinger and the Shared cM Project, to better assess your genealogical relationship with your match based on your genetics.

To use the chart, take the total amount of shared DNA you have with a match, and look up that number in the chart to get an idea of what kind of genealogical relationship might best fit the genetics that you see. For example, if I share 69 cM with my match, we might be third cousins. But we might also be second cousins once or twice removed.

How do you figure out which one? Simply put: do genealogy research! It’s time to use traditional records and research skills to better understand the genetic clues in your family history mysteries.

My series of DNA quick reference guides can help you get the most out of your DNA tests for family history. I definitely recommend the value-priced bundle of all 10 guides. But I especially recommend the guides listed below if you’re to the point where you’re trying to understand what genetic relationships mean:

Thanks for sharing this post with someone who would enjoy reading it! You’re a gem!

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

The Cool New Technology that Just Got Better with Genealogy

Originally designed specifically for the iPad in 2010, the free Flipboard app has moved onto all the major mobile platforms. And this cool new technology has just gotten better with a big dose of genealogy!

I invite you to explore the newly released free Flipboard magazine RootsTech 2014: Where Genealogy and Technology Converge

Genealogy Gems has  published the magazine in conjunction with the RootsTech program team in a continuing effort to help family historians embrace new technologies and present RootsTech attendees with the possibilities.

Consider what’s been happening in the mobile space this last year:

  • Smartphone usage in the U.S. increased by 50 percent (Kleiner Perkins)
  • The number of emails being opened on mobile increased by 330 percent (Litmus)
  • Tablet usage doubled in the U.S. (Pew Research Center)

The bottom line: More than ever folks are accessing websites, videos, podcasts, blogs and other online information on their mobile devices. That’s where the free Flipboard app comes in.

The free Flipboard app is a social-network and online aggregator of web content and RSS channels for Android, Blackberry 10, iOS, Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8. Content is presented in a captivating magazine format allowing users to “flip” through it with a simple swipe of the finger.

As a genealogy new media content creator and publisher, we’re excited to introduce a creative use of this emerging technology to the genealogy industry. RootsTech 2014: Where Genealogy and Technology Converge is a free magazine available at http://tinyurl.com/RootsTech2014. The magazine pulls together great web content from RootsTech speakers, exhibitors, and official bloggers in one beautiful and convenient place.

This magazine has presented an opportunity to crowd-source the know-how and talent of all of those who work to make RootsTech a success. The magazine offers an exciting look at the RootsTech experience the innovative technologies emerging in the genealogy industry, and a new vehicle for everyone in the RootsTech community to converge! The pages go beyond text and images by also delivering video and audio!

How to Access the Magazine in Flipboard:

  1. Get the free Flipboard app at flipboard.com, in iTunes or Google Play.
  2. Set up for your free account
  3. In the search box at the top of the homepage, search for ROOTSTECH
  4. Tap “RootsTech 2014” by Lisa Louise Cooke (you’ll see a magazine icon next to it.)
  5. When the magazine loads, tap the SUBSCRIBE icon at the top of the page
  6. Starting at the right hand side of the page, swipe your finger from right to left over each page to “flip!”

Looking for more great genealogy themed Flipboard magazines? Check out two more new issues from Lisa Louise Cooke:

Stay tuned to the Genealogy Gems Blog and Podcast for Lisa’s upcoming exclusive interview with the folks at Flipboard!

How to Create a Coloring Book for Family History

create a coloring bookColoring books are all the rage for adults and kids. Let this project and these free online tools inspire you to create a coloring book to celebrate your heritage.

Last Christmas, my mom Cheryl McClellan created a coloring book for our extended family out of family artwork. She requested copies of line drawings from every willing relative, especially her grandchildren (ages 3-20). Then she added her own childhood artwork, some of mine, and some of her mother’s, so four generations are represented.

create a coloring book

The flowers on the left, originally painted by my grandma, wasn’t as easily colored because of all the dark areas. My mom’s childhood drawing and my son’s, on the right, both made very “colorable” images.

Then she simply photocopied each page to make it into a coloring page. She experimented with the black-and-white settings until she got the best quality reproductions for coloring.

The grandchildren’s artwork came out the best because they created images meant to be colored (with lots of lines and spaces and no shading). The older artwork reproduced with varying degrees of success. But all were fun to include. She chose not to bind the completed book, so the pages would be easier to color, but instead put each person’s collection of coloring pages in large envelopes.

More tools and ideas: Create a coloring book

To create your own family coloring book, gather family photos (or artwork) from your family archive that would be interesting to color. Consider pictures of relatives, homes, heirlooms, or other objects of significance to your current family life or your family history. The best images will have plenty of contrast in them (lights and darks).

Choose your favorite free online photo editing tool, if you have one. Examples include Pixlr.com and Snapstouch.com. I chose Snapstouch because it’s super easy. Here are the instructions on Snapstouch:

1. From the home page, select which final visual effect you prefer: I chose Sketch. (Depending on the photo and the desired effect, you might also choose Drawing or Outline.)

2. Choose your image file from your computer.

3. Select additional options, as shown here. (In Sketch mode, you can choose a darker pencil sketch and faces to be refined).

4. Click UPLOAD. Wait for the file to upload to the site.

5. After the upload is complete, you’ll see the option to click SKETCH. Click and wait for a moment.

6. If the final image is not to your liking, play with the options (you don’t need to re-upload the photo to do this). OR switch to a different visual effect and experiment.

7. Click DOWNLOAD when you’ve got the image you want.

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