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Obituaries and Etiquette

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Obituaries are treasure troves of genealogical data. The best ones, from our point of view, tell us the deceased person's birth date, birthplace, parents, siblings, children, occupation, hobbies, military service and where they are buried. The worst ones don't provide many facts and perpetuate family legends. The lowest reporter on the newspaper's totem pole usually writes the obituaries. They don't cross-examine the grieving family. If the family firmly believes Uncle Elmer's grandpa was a Colonel in the First Oklahoma Paratroop Regiment during the Civil War and his grandma was a Cherokee Princess, that's what they will tell the reporter, and that's what will go into the obituary.

(See below for an example of just how good an obituary can be.)

How do you get an obituary? Four ways; find it on-line, look it up yourself, write for it or post a query. You need the death date and death place no matter which route you follow. Unless you can find it on-line, someone is going to have to wade through newspapers on microfilm, which isn't fun. I can read 7 - 10 days worth of newspapers before I get seasick. Be considerate of whoever looks it up, even if it is yourself.

On-Line Lookups

You may be able to find the obituary you need in
Obit Central.com

If not, use Google to find the newspaper that serves the town; an argument of town and the word "newspaper" should do it:
[Denver newspaper].
You'll need to add the state for some cities:
[Springfield {Missouri | Illinois | Oregon. . .} Newspaper].
Once you find the newspaper's web site, poke around. Some have all the obituaries under "Obituaries", some have the older ones in "Archives". Some don't use either of those terms. Some newspapers leave obituaries on-line forever, some for a year, some for just 7 days. Some charge for older articles, be they obituaries or not.

If the name is uncommon, try a combination of exact phrase and an additional word in Google:
["Abraham Lincoln" Obituary]
["Lincoln Abraham" Obituary]
["Abe Lincoln" Obituary]
["Lincoln Abe" Obituary]
The exact punctuation may not show in some fonts. You have to enclose the name in quotation marks ("), not apostroples (') and you should try all four forms of the name.

Library Lookups

If you live in the area, the best way to get the obituary is to visit your local library. If you do, you don't have to worry about etiquette; just be polite to the staff and keep your voice down. When I write for one, I send the name, exact death date, a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a small check ($5 - $10, depending on how close I am to payday). I ask the librarians to use the money for copying costs and put the balance into the children's book fund.

Posting a Query

If you live in the USA, you can try asking for a lookup from a kind-hearted soul via a county-level query board. This method brings up the etiquette. There are two major query sites with county-level boards, GenForum and Ancestry.

First rule: Make sure of your facts. Look up the town. RootsWeb's Town Finder will tell you what county a town is in. Look up the date. Most people in the USA will be on a Social Security Death Index (SSDI). The Mormons have a free one: LDS SSDI. If it has just month and year, you'll have to get the exact date elsewhere. Spell out the month (01 April 1955, not 01/04/55) to avoid ambiguity. I wasted half an hour once, looking for someone who wasn't there. It turned out the lady in question had died six months later than the query said, in the next county north.

Second rule: If you post a request on both boards, say so in both requests. When you get a response, post a reply to your request on the other board. This prevents duplication of effort, which makes kind-hearted souls less kind-hearted.

Third rule: If people do you a favor, you owe them one in return. This is as true in genealogy as it is in dinner invitations. The chances of the person who did your lookup needing one in your county are slim, but if you look at the query board for your county, chances are you'll find a dozen ways to pay the favor forward.

That, incidentally, is why I look up obituaries for people on the Stanislaus County GenForum page. People across the country have looked things up for me, ranging from obituaries to biographies in county history books to one angel in Iowa who, since it was a nice day, drove 7 miles to a cemetery and transcribed a family plot of CADY relatives for me. I can't ever pay them back specifically, but I'm doing the best I can to pay back the genealogists in general.

Doing Lookups for Others

If you decide to join the ranks of kind-hearted souls by looking up obituaries for people, there are a couple of reciprocal warnings for you.

First, check the facts, in case the poster hasn't. If you can, look up the individual on a death index to make sure they really died on the date posted, in your county. Thirty seconds with the SSDI may save you thirty minutes with microfilm.

Second, check the competition. If you see a request on Ancestry that someone answered on GenForum, save your efforts. You might post a reply on Ancestry with a link to the GenForum post to save others from wasting their efforts.

Third, most people are polite, but they need reminders. They may also think you are a long-lost cousin. I try to put a disclaimer at the bottom of every obituary I post: "I'm not related. I look up obituaries to pay back genealogical favors. If you have the time, ability and inclination to do likewise, look at the query board for your county."

Classy Obituary

(I heard this obituary on NPR's "Car Talk" and thought it was worth sharing. Louis Casimir, a retired University English professor, wrote it himself before he passed on. I added the definitions in square brackets.)

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania - Louis J. Casimir Jr. bought the farm Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004, having lived more than twice as long as he had expected and probably three or four times as long as he deserved. Although he was born into an impecunious [penniless] family, in a backward and benighted part of the country at the beginning of the Great Depression, he never in his life suffered any real hardships. Many of his childhood friends who weren't killed or maimed in various wars became petty criminals, prostitutes, and/or Republicans.

He survived three years overseas in an infantry regiment in excellent health, then university for four years on the GI bill, and never thereafter had to do an honest day's work. He was loved by good women, had loyal friends, and all his children were healthy, handsome and bright.

For more than six decades, he smoked, drank and ate lots of animal fat, but never had a serious illness or injury. His last wish was that everyone could be as lucky as he had been, even through his demise was probably iatrogenic. [Induced in a patient by a physician's activity, manner, or therapy.]

Lou was a daredevil; his last words were "Watch this!"

A memorial service and barbecue will be held on Labor Day at Lou's place.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014