Skip to main content
  1. Life
  2. Society & Culture
  3. Generations

Strategies for finding obituaries in newspaper databases

See also

If you haven’t had much luck finding your ancestors’ obituaries and death notices online, you may need a few strategies to improve your search results.

As an example, at subscription-based GenealogyBank.com, a simple search for Honora Williams (with the death year and state specified) turned up two hits—not for her obituary, but for her husband’s, since he died in the same year. Using a few tricks, another search found the desired obituary and death notice for Honora.

Widen Your View

Search results will list which newspaper editions match your query, but sometimes there’s more than one hit within one issue of the paper. Zoom out in case your search terms (often highlighted in yellow) show up several times on one page or on several pages. Clicking on the results link may bring you to a death notice, and if you’re not looking for more, you may miss an obituary with photo or an article about funeral arrangements on the same newspaper date.

What’s in a Name

At first, try only the surname in the name field. Sometimes people use their initials, middle names, or nicknames throughout their lives, only to pull out their legal or more formal names on odd documents. My Abigail Louise has been recorded as Abgail, Abby, Abbie L., Abby Luie, A. Luisa, Louisie, Louisa, and Louisa A. Her daughters Theresa shows up as Thressa and Tessie, while Marguerite is often misspelled Margaret. Skipping all the alternatives and adding a date may make it easier to search for someone.

If you’re looking for an uncommon first name, like Honora, use that in the name field without a surname.

Try alternate spellings, since names may change over time. Plus, misspellings and mistakes were not uncommon and typos happen, especially when newspaper deadlines are looming. OCR or optical character recognition works best on clean, easy-to-read copy—and some old newspapers are tattered and worn, with ink smudges and bleed-through, producing poor results or even gibberish.

Look for a woman under her husband’s name, even if she’s a widow. Doing a search on “Louis Williams” with the year and state brought up the obituary for Honora. Why would that happen? In the headline she was listed under her husband’s name and her first name, Honora, was mentioned later in the article. That’s because some searches look for a certain number of words or spaces between two joined search terms. In older newspapers, sometimes first names weren’t even mentioned, just a reference to “Mrs. Williams.”

Use only part of the surname as a search term, in case a name is hyphenated and part of it is carried to the next line. In this example, the “iams” in Williams may produce results, while “Will” may pick up unrelated men named William as well as probate matters.

Narrow by Date or Keyword

If the name produces too many results, add to your search terms. If known, include a year and then update the sort field from “best matches” to date order (“oldest items”). That way, you can go directly to the death month. You may want to include a wider date range, to pick up any probate or estate proceedings that can happen months or even years after a death.

Adding a relative’s name may focus the results. Searching for “Williams” and “Cooney” (her daughter’s surname) found an article on Honora’s probate.

Include more details if you still have too many results. Add a town, city, or street name to your keyword search. (However, in cases of city newspapers, it may be a community or neighborhood—like the North End—mentioned instead.) Add a description or job title, such as attorney/lawyer or pianist.

Location, Location, Location

You may be able to narrow your search to a specific paper, city, or state. Check the database for a list of newspaper titles (see example for GenealogyBank.com). Then click on a title and search. Also, from the homepage of GenealogyBank.com, you can narrow your search by state.

If a newspaper you’re looking for is not online, still look. Some obituaries tell other newspapers to copy the notice. (That also gives you clues to follow up about previous residences or other relatives.) In one case, my ancestor had a brief death notice in his local newspaper. However, a newspaper editor in a nearby town wrote a full obituary a few days later. In it, the editor mentioned reading that death notice and expanded on it with great detail about my ancestor’s life and character. It turns out the editor knew my ancestor well, since he owned a business there.

Some newspapers pick up sensational or curious stories, even though an event happened hundreds or thousands of miles away, and the person would be unknown otherwise. For example, a 10-year-old boy died by falling between parked railroad cars. This story was picked up in several states, with some of the accounts containing additional information, particularly about the extent of his injuries.

Skip the Categories

Don’t limit yourself to obituaries and death notices. You may find classified ads and legal notices about settling an estate, a news story about an accident or investigation, marriage notices of children (daughter of the late Honora), or mentions in the society or local news pages.

Review the Collection

Still having no luck? Not everything is online and different newspaper databases have different collections. You may find an obituary through Legacy that is not available at Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, FamilySearch, or other genealogy databases. Also, newspaper collections are always growing, so check back at a later date.

If you know the death date and location, see if a local library will check obituaries in their newspaper collections or request newspapers on microfilm through interlibrary loan.

And, if your search produces no results, remember, not everyone had obituaries or death notices written about them.

Advertisement