Being able to research those who lived in the past is an integral part of genealogy and other types of research, but it isn't always as simple as you'd like it to be to find the records you're looking for. Furthermore, the proliferation of online and private research engines and companies, in addition to traditional public records offices, sometimes makes it even more confusing to know where to start - ironic, to say the least, when the aim of every service is to ease your search efforts.
In any event, where you will start largely depends on both the information you already have, and the specific information you want to find. For example, having a full name, social security number, location of death, and an idea of the date of death will mean you'll be starting off in a different place than if you didn't have any of that information. That said, the focus of this article is what types of resources are available to you when researching obituaries, so let's jump right into that.
How do you find an obituary for a specific person?
The fastest way to find an obituary for a specific person is to search for them at one or several of the paid online obituaries or genealogy search services. There is a fee associated with these services. If you are willing to put in some effort there are many ways to find obituaries for free. For example, many states maintain databases of death records and virtually all newspapers publish their obituaries online for free.
Print newspaper obituaries and death records
Probably the biggest categorization for obituary research sources is whether they are online or offline. Each has its uses, but in general online resources are faster. Newspapers historically published regular obituaries and many still do today. For example, The New York Times obituaries section is published in both online and print formats. It is worth noting, however, that not every document source has been placed (properly) online, even if a lot have, so sometimes offline opportunities afford for more detailed and complete research. While less and less common today, there may even be some cases in which an obituary is only able to be found in offline records.
Libraries: Public libraries often have issues of various local newspapers on record, meaning that you can easily find and make copies of any published obituaries. These issues will generally go back a few years, depending on the size and resources available to the library. In some cases, however, you might be searching for someone who died many years ago, in which case print records are most likely unavailable. Fear not, your library still has a solution! Most libraries will, as they phase out old physical/paper copies, maintain records of back issues on microfilm. Librarians can help you access and go through this information. Depending on the technology and budget available to your library, microfilm availability is not a guarantee.
Sometimes you'll be looking for the obituary of someone who doesn't live near you, and so the only local library that would have records of their death is far away. In these cases, you can usually still call with the information you have and ask a librarian to conduct research for you using their archives and then send you copies of whatever they find (often done via email now).
State Archives: If you can't find what you need at the library, you should be able to find it in the state archives. The state archives are especially useful for finding very old records and newspaper issues, so they should be one of your first stops if you're looking for obituaries for genealogy research purposes. The only major downside to state and national archives is that they are going to be limited in location, so unless you're fortunate enough to live nearby, you may be in for quite a road trip.
Online records are all the rage, and generally for good reason: they're quick, easy to navigate, and eliminate the need for physical travel, copying, or retrieval. While there are many legitimate sites and services, there are some not-so-above-board ones as well. If a site ever asks you to pay, be sure to understand what exactly you're paying for. Obituaries and newspaper records are available to the public for free, so paying just to look at them alone doesn't make sense. What you're normally paying for, if anything, is the ease of finding the information you're looking for all in one place or, in the case of full-service sites, another individual to actually do your research and reproduction for you. When using any online service, always look for reviews on third party sites before committing your time, money, and resources to any one option. Asking in various Facebook or forum groups on genealogy can be a great way to get recommendations from others on the best places to find the specific information you're looking for.
Paid services: A quick search at your favorite search engine will find several of the oldest (no pun intended) sites that offer family and genealogical research. They typically offer searchable databases of all kinds of relevant life and death documents and allow you to search by inputting as much information as you know or want to give it about a person. In return, these services will spit back at you various documents that possibly match your inquiry and some general information. They then offer to provide much richer data for a fee. These tools are powerful and exhaustive, but they do come at a cost. There are usually trial periods where you can conduct multiple searches for a few days for a small fee or you can pay a larger one- time payment instead. The trial period also allows for printing and saving of any documents you find, so if you time your searches well and don't start your trial until you're ready, this may be the least expensive way to conduct a detailed online search.
Free services: With free services, it's all about trying to get the most information without having to pay. Older census data is freely available to the public and can be searched for the records you're looking for. You can look at census information for different years and can tailor your search by location. This is a quick, easy way to dive right into a rich source of data and it is free to use. Of course, there are many other free services that offer access to obituaries online as well.
Of course, with any search strategy, whether online or offline, you're going to want to be patient and account for any possible changes over time which might make the way in which you're searching for a person obsolete or need some tweaking. Examples include newspapers that have shut down since the time of death and places in which records may have been moved or damaged due to facilities changes or natural disasters.