How to Locate an Obituary in the District of Columbia
Obituaries are an important part of historical research, whether it's a component of an enthusiast's genealogy projects or academic or professional study. This is largely due to their ability to provide a lot of information about a person, usually containing, at a minimum, a list of surviving family members and some significant lifetime achievements. Obituaries, for research purposes, are often used alongside death certificates, the official document that is usually issued by the Department of Health in every state.
Genealogical or any other historical research that involves the search for the deceases can benefit from multiple formats, but obituaries are particularly useful as they contain the most contextual information. Obituary searching is easy, provided that you know the full name of the person, the date and place of death, and the name of the newspaper that carried the obituary. In such a scenario, the search would take no more than a few seconds -- the time you need to access the digital archive of the newspaper. However, such cases do not make up the majority.
As an obituary seeker, the problems you're most likely to encounter usually come down to a lack of initial information. You might not know the full name of the person, or you might, in one of the most common cases, not know the name of the newspaper in which the obituary was published. In an area like DC, the latter may not be too big of a challenge, due to the small number of newspapers that circulate there (relative to large states, at least). However, it should be noted that not every single death “merits” an obituary – or at least it may never make it to a newspaper's attention - so a smaller number of newspapers implies a smaller chance that the death was recorded in an obituary.
Still, in DC, there are extensive online and offline resources to help you in your search. These fall into three groups: online databases, including newspaper digital archives; public libraries, which have extensive newspaper collections; and state agencies, including the Department of Health, and local government authorities. The type of document you want, an obituary or an official death certificate, should determine the starting point of your research.
Death certificates are among the vital records that are kept by the Department of Health in the District of Columbia. The agency is custodian of all death records from 1874 to the present day. These certificates become public 50 years after being issued, so if you are after an older death record, you need to either write to the Vital Records Division of the Department of Health, at 899 North Capitol Street, NE, 1st Floor, Washington, DC 20002, or request a copy in person at the same address. Alternatively, you can apply for a death record copy online, using the services of an independent company, VitalChek.
Vital record searches by the VRD staff carry a fee even if the search fails to yield a certificate. Any copies, certified or information-only, that the Division issues are also paid. Additional fees apply if you use the services of VitalChek.
You can also request a genealogical search to be performed by the Division, but you should bear in mind that this will take between six and eight weeks because of the exhaustive work that the Division’s staff will need to perform.
Even if you're after an obituary and not a death certificate, death certificates can be easier to find with less information, and then can be used to help further an obituary search after the fact.
The District of Columbia Public Library has impressive resources with regards to death records. One of the biggest advantages of libraries when it comes to newspaper records is that they often keep back issues, sometimes the complete record, of newspapers that have long since ceased to exist. The records available at the DCPL include newspaper issues from 1800 to the present, including the well-known Washington Post from 1877 to the present day, the Washington Daily News from 1921 to 1972, and the Washington Evening Star for the period 1852 to 1950, among others. There are online full-text search options for the Washington Post and Washington Evening Star records if you hold a library card for the DCPL.
Aside from newspaper records, the DC public library has an extensive list of will and death record indexes. Among these are an index of District of Columbia wills for the period 1801 to 1920, another one for the period 1921 to 1950, a collection of DC probate records for 1801-1852, and a register of burials from the Joseph F. Birch funeral home. The index list also includes death notices and obituaries from the National Intelligencer daily from the 19th century, and death notices from the Georgetown Courier. The library also has cemetery and church records that could aid your search.