Obituaries are detailed announcements of a person's death, usually published in their local newspaper. They differ from death notices in that the latter tend to be much shorter, and only contain basic information on the date and (sometimes) circumstances surrounding the death. It is the extra details that make obituaries a very valuable source of historical information for researchers and enthusiasts alike. For many family histories and biographies obituaries are a cornerstone, as they include information both about the decedent, and about their immediate ancestors and surviving family members.
Obituary searches today are made much easier by numerous online databases and indexes, but they may still take quite a lot of time if you do not have all the information you need to locate one. What's more, since not all deaths are reported in obituaries, you may have to look for another document verifying a person's death, such as a death certificate or a church record entry, especially for deaths from a long time ago.
If you are looking for a document regarding a distant member of your family in Minnesota, you may consider contacting the state's Department of Health, which is the custodian of all vital records. This is the best course of action but only if the certificate you need dates from 1908 or later, since this is the year when the state started registering deaths officially. But that does not mean that you will be unable to find older death certificates -- you will just need to contact the local vital record issuance office in the respective county. A list of these can be found on the MDH website.
As the Minnesota Office of Vital Records does not provide a walk-in service, you can apply for a copy of a death certificate by mail, e-mail, or by fax, after filling in a standard application form that states your eligibility. Vital records are considered confidential, which is why only direct family members can access them.
County authorities and local historical societies are other great sources of obituary and death record information, as they sometimes keep databases that include information unavailable anywhere else. Minnesota's Clay county, for example, keeps an index of death records on its website for the period 1872 to 1980. Hubbard county, for its part, has an obituary list compiled from local papers, as well as a series of alphabetical-order lists of deaths from the county. The website also includes cemetery records and funeral home records.
The Minnesota Historical Society is also working to facilitate obituary searches. At its website, the Society has a death certificates index you can browse based on name, year or period, and county. The database includes, with small exceptions, copies of death cards for 1900-1907, and death certificates on microfilm for 1908-2001, which makes it pretty extensive. You should bear in mind, though, that many death certificates from 1996 are missing from the index, as well as some from 1980 and 1991.
Local historical associations are also valuable sources of information. The Blue Earth County Historical Society, for example, has an index of wills for the period 1858 to 1973, and a cemetery index. Though neither can be seen as equal to obituaries, these are nevertheless two types of information that could be useful for historical and genealogical research. Another local society, the Carver County Historical Society has a newspaper index search toll, which can be used to locate the edition in which a particular obituary was published. The society's library is ready to assist with searches, whether you go in person or request assistance in writing.
Many Minnesota counties keep their local cemetery record databases, as well as indexes of death records from the region. On many occasions these local sources can be much more helpful that, for instance, online obituary databases, because of the amount of local records they keep. What's especially valuable is that most of these records date back to the 19th century, so if you are looking for a historical obituary or another form of death announcement, historical societies in Minnesota may be your best bet.
Libraries are major information repositories, with sometimes extensive newspaper records. They also have expert staff that could help you in your search for an obituary. The Hennepin County Library, for instance, has a very extensive online list of resources, both in-house and external, which you can access either from home or from a library computer. Among these are HeritageQuest, a huge database of all sorts of genealogical and biographical documents, and the Ancestry Library Edition, a vast collection of historical records, including local histories, death records, and newspaper runs. Both of these are subscription services, which you can use on site.
There is a variety of online obituary databases that collect information from newspapers of all sizes in the US, which you can use in your obituary search. These websites are particularly suited for searches regarding more recent obituaries, although some of them use nationwide death record repositories to provide information about historical obituaries too.
Do a quick search of the web and pick from among the biggest databases, where you can search by name, date, period, and location. These contain hundreds of thousands of obituaries and there is a very good chance you will find the one you are looking for. Some use data from nationwide indexes such as the Social Security Death Index, which includes data on all deaths of social security card holders that were reported to the Social Security Authority. This makes the index pretty comprehensive for the period 1937 to the present day. They all charge for their services, but they can often find at least some of the pieces of information you might be looking for.
Minnesota is among the states that have very extensive resources when it comes to obituary searches. It seems that one of its particular advantages over other states is in the impressive number of historical societies, which keep local records and also have the expertise needed in such undertakings. If you are just starting in genealogy, you will do well to consider using these resources in order to save time and effort. It's an additional convenience that a lot of this information is available in digital form for no charge.