Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Family Records: Obituaries

Lives After Death

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2009]

What could be more useful to a family historian than an obituary? Surely, no other source of information could beat a mini-biography of your ancestor finished off, perhaps, with an adroit assessment of his character, and with a couple of anecdotes about his life thrown in for good measure? Obituaries in the form we recognise them have been around since the late eighteenth century when they first replaced public death announcements in the Gentleman’s Magazine and they can certainly prove a goldmine for the family historian.

Bear in mind that your ancestor does not need to have been particularly well- known to have had an obituary in more than one publication. My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Symes, – an ordinary working-class mother of six who had no major public achievements – had two obituaries following her death in March 1940: one in her local newspaper, the Stalybridge Reporter, and a shorter one in the Manchester Evening News. From these, I discovered that Elizabeth had been associated with two Methodist chapels, one in Ancoats, Manchester and the other in Stalybridge. She was apparently devoted to good works and highly regarded by the local community. Slowly a new picture of my great-grandmother started to emerge – a woman of practical skills and religious commitment. The obituary had brought her to life and given me several new research leads in a way that no other source other than oral memory might have done.

Obituary of Elizabeth Symes, Stalybridge Reporter March 1940

Obituaries, even in relatively modest publications, can include some or all of the following details:

·       name

·       occupation

·       date and cause of death

·       circumstances of death

·       birth date

·       birthplace

·       list of surviving relatives

·       mention of close relatives (such as a spouse) who have recently died

·       marriage information

·       membership of organizations

·       military service

·       education

     ·       employment history

·       outstanding achievements

·       offices held

·       hobbies and activities

      ·       funeral, memorial and burial arrangements

      ·       names of pallbearers

      ·       names of mourners

·       names of those who donated flowers.

For ordinary people, local newspaper obituaries are likely to carry longer obituaries than city newspapers. Obituaries in journals again will be longer and fuller. All of these items, of course, provide the starting point for further investigation of certificates, graveyards and cemeteries, military and employment records, and greatly aid the search for surviving relatives.

Where might I find my ancestor’s obituary?

You may find obituaries of your ancestors in a number of different places.

  • Only the lives of very famous ancestors will have been described in the obituary columns of national newspapers. (for instance, obituaries published in the The Times from 1785-1985 can be searched by keyword and viewed at

  • Relatives of more ordinary ancestors may have paid to put short notices in local or regional newspapers. Bear in mind that your ancestor’s obituary is more likely to be found in a newspaper local to the place in which he lived for most of his life than in a paper local to the place where he died. In daily newspapers, obituaries tend to appear very soon (2-3 days) after the death of the subject. In the early twentieth century, obituaries may even have appeared in the evening edition of the paper on the day of death. Many obituaries include funeral arrangements, so they will appear during the week between the death and the funeral. If the local newspaper is a weekly one, however, make sure you look in the issues up to three weeks after the death. Remember also that if your ancestor died in particularly tragic or unusual circumstances, their obituary might be reported as a news item. Once you know exactly when your relative died, you should be able to search the relevant microfiche copies of the local newspaper in your local library. If the obituary doesn’t appear in the newspaper you are looking in, ask whether there was another local newspaper at the time. It’s possible that the library might have an on-line website with information about obituaries or even an obituary index
  • If your ancestor was a member of a church, society, organisation or club, an obituary might have been written about him or her in a church magazine, company or society newsletter, alumni magazine (of a college or university), or professional journal. Remember, these obituaries may not have been published until some time after the death. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) records the obituaries of over 400 doctors per year and asks that obituaries be submitted within three months of a death. But the obituaries themselves may not appear in the journal for another two months.

  • If your ancestor belonged to a particular trade, his obituary might appear in the relevant trade journal. Some of this information is now available online. For example, the names of watchmakers, chronometer makers, clock makers, and   jewellers whose obituaries appeared in the Horological Journal between 1862 and 2002 are online at At the same website is a list of obituaries that appeared in the Watch and Clockmaker Magazine between 1928 and 1939. Copies of the actual obituaries may be obtained for a fee via the website.
  • Some obituaries of the prominent members of various religious denominations have been collected together and published in book form. If your early nineteenth-ancestor was a Unitarian, for example, his death might appear in Unitarian Obituaries from Various Denominational Journals 1794-1850, (ed. Alan Ruston), Quakers from the South-East might appear in An Index to Surrey Quaker Obituaries, 1813-1892 In The Annual Monitor, (ed., Clifford Webb). To discover whether a relevant published collection of obituaries exists, visit the academic bibliographic website at This may be searched under keywords.
Ten Top Tips for Reading Obituaries

At first glance, obituaries can seem to be the answer to all a family historian’s prayers, but be cautious, they can also be full of traps.  You should look out for:

1. Writer’s Bias. Obituaries may give the impression that they are totally impartial (few appear with an author’s name), but, of course, they have all been put together by someone. Some publications will have had standard obituary formats or will have provided guidelines on what a relative might write. If the obituary of your ancestor appears in a company newsletter, or professional journal, it may have been written by a friend, relative, colleague or employer who may have had his own agenda for presenting your ancestor in a certain way.

2. Cost. Never forget the fact that relatives have probably paid a fee per line or per word for the obituary and, in such cases, the item may, by necessity, have stuck to a bare minimum of information which may result in misinterpretation.

3. Bias of the Publication If your source is a church magazine, it is likely to play up the spiritual qualities of your ancestor. If it is a left-wing newspaper, it is likely to emphasise his more radical qualities. If it is right-wing, he may be presented as more conservative.

  1. Historical Bias. Think about the historical moment at which the obituary appeared.  An obituary written in the throes of the First World War, is likely to have a patriotic edge. Obituaries of women written before the last quarter of the twentieth century, are less likely to celebrate their working lives than their homemaking qualities..
5. Obituaries Written in Advance. The obituaries of the famous may have been written a long time before the death of the person in question. The Times began its practice of preparing obituaries in advance under the editorship of John Thadeus Delane (1841-79) and currently has around 5,000 obituaries waiting in the wings.

6. Inaccuracies and Omissions. Obituaries may be inadvertently inaccurate (in terms of names and dates perhaps), or they might very deliberately omit information. If someone has been married twice, for example, his or her first marriage may not be mentioned. Likewise, if the deceased person was separated from a spouse and living with a partner, it may be the wife and not the partner who gets a mention in the obituary – something that will totally skew your impression of your relative’s life.

7. Missing causes of death. Causes of death may not be given if the deceased is over 70 years old and certainly, most twentieth-century obituaries do not glory in details of an ancestor’s last moments as Victorian obituaries tended to do.

8. Large gaps in time that are not accounted for. Ask yourself whether this might be because the writer didn’t know anything about this part of the deceased’s life or whether it is because something happened, that is unfit for public mention.

9. Euphemisms. These may have been used to cover up something unpleasant – a financial disaster or period in prison, for example.

10. Clichés. Statements such as ‘Adored by all his colleagues’ or ‘We shall not see his like again’ may be the result of a lack of imagination on the part of the writer rather than any genuine exceptional qualities on the part of your ancestor. 

Keywords: Obituaries, European ancestors, death, England

Useful Books

Alana Baranick, Jim Sheeler and Stephen Miller, Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers, Marion Street Press, 2005.

Nigel Starck, Life after Death: A Celebration of the Obituary Art, Melbourne University Press, 2006.

Ian Brunskill, ed., Great Lives: A Century in Obituaries, Times Books.

Janice Simons, Marriage and Obituary Notices, Janice Simons, 1994

Alan Ruston, ed, Unitarian Obituaries from Various Denominational Journals 1794-1850, Watford 1990.

Clifford Webb, ed, An Index to Surrey Quaker Obituaries, 1813-1892 in the Annual Monitor, West Surrey Family History Society, Vol 11, 1990.

Useful Websites Archive of The Times newspaper from 1785 and 1985 which can be searched for free. Archive of the Guardian (1821 onwards) and Observer (1791 onwards) newspapers. A fee is charged to search this service. The British Medical Journal archive (1840 onwards) which can be searched for free. = an academic website listing all books held in British libraries and easily searchable by keyword. -  A Virtual Memorial Garden where you can add your own obituaries of your deceased relatives.

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