Wednesday, August 9, 2017

So You Found an Obituary

While I'm taking my time to research the descendants of John and Sarah (Callin) Scott, I figured I'd share one of my favorite tools with you: the Obituary.

When I started out, I didn't really know what to do with an obituary; obviously, you can take information from it and add new names, dates, and places to your family tree, but I learned the hard way that you have to make sure to add the obit as a source for every single detail and do so in a way that makes it clear where every piece of information came from.

Here's an example. To protect the identities of any living people, all names and identifying dates have been changed, but otherwise, this is a real example of an obituary, and how I work it into my Ancestry tree:

Ivy Edith Borden
November 22, 2010 at 5:00 am
Mrs. Ivy Edith Borden, 87, of Townsville, [Wisconsin] died on Tuesday, November 21, 2010 at Townsville Memorial Hospital. She was born on October 6, 1923, in South Townsville, Illinois to Fred and Myrtle (Johnson) Small-Krauss. She was a graduate of South Townsville High School, Class of 1942.
Mrs. Borden worked at the Telephone Company and at the local Chemical Company. She married Julius Borden in 1950. She was an excellent homemaker. She greatly enjoyed bowling, camping, playing cards and working crossword puzzles. Most of all she loved spending time with her family. Mrs. Borden was a passionate Cubs fan.
She is survived by her children: Cheryl Borden - Chicago, Ill; Harold Borden (Pat Andrews) - S. Townsville, Ill; Two grandchildren: Joshua Borden and Richard Borden, both of Columbo, Ill. Also two great grandchildren. Many nieces and nephews including, Gerald and Roberta Yokum and Gary and Ann Sailors.
She was preceded in death by her parents, four brothers: Frank, Harry, Lester and Charles. One sister, Ethel Sailors-Mann.
The Memorial Service for Mrs. Ivy Borden will be held at 12:00 p.m. on November 27, 2010 at the Barry Funeral Home. Burial will follow at Greenlawn Cemetery.
Friends may call on Monday, November 27, 2010 at 11:00 a.m. until the time of service.

Finding the Obituary

There are abundant resources for locating obituaries that ran in newspapers. These days, funeral homes often also host obituaries on their websites. For someone who died more recently (ie, since the early 2000s), your best bet is to begin with Google.

If they died further back in time, internet searches become less useful, and you may need to turn to a service like If your ancestor died further back than the 1900s, you would be better off searching through local histories or genealogical surveys which might be available in Google books, the Internet Archive, or a service like Heritage Quest (which you ought to be able to access for free through your local public library).

Knowing what to search for is sometimes difficult. With our example, "Ivy Borden" is obviously Ivy's married name. If you are working "down the tree," as I often am, you may not start out knowing who she married, if she married, or when or where she died. Finding an obituary can be tricky under those circumstances, but it's not impossible.

Let's assume that in Ivy's case, I was researching her mother's line - so if I started with Myrtle Johnson, and found records of her marriage to Fred Small, I might have Census records for Myrtle's family, a marriage record for her and Fred, and possibly the 1930 and/or 1940 Census for Fred, Myrtle, and their other children (Frank, Harry, Lester, Charles, and Ethel).

If I were trying to find Ivy's obituary with that body of starting information, I would probably put this in my search:

Ivy Small obituary Fred Myrtle Johnson

Depending on what I see in my search results, I could add Ivy's birthdate and birthplace (which might not be exact, if I go by the Census records) or I could take out information to try to get better results. Adding the names of siblings may or may not be helpful. With a name like "Johnson," it may be better to leave it out and put a more unusual fact in.

Then, when this obituary turns up in my results, I know I have the right person because the parents and siblings match. (And yes, some obituaries leave a lot of that information out. We work with what we can find.) Obviously, finding the obituary is a skill that one refines with practice over time.

Using Internal Logic

There is a lot of useful information here. On the surface, you find Ivy's husband and children and get confirmation that her siblings all died before she did. You also get some other useful clues about what happened to her family in the time between the 1940 Census and Ivy's death in 2010.

One important detail in this particular example has to do with the location. You might not have noticed that Ivy died in "Townsville, Wisconsin" but was born in nearby "South Townsville, Illinois." It is always a good idea to learn about the geography around your ancestors, but in this case, it is particularly important that you know to search for records in both states. You may have gaps that could be filled in with information from just across the state line.

If you look at the way the obituary listed Ivy's parents - "Fred and Myrtle (Johnson) Small-Krauss" - you can see that Fred Small married Myrtle Johnson, and you can probably guess that after Fred died, Myrtle remarried. If you hadn't known that, it could help you find her obituary or death records under the name "Myrtle Krauss." That kind of information doesn't always show up in obituaries, especially if there was a divorce involved, but when you see it, make note of it.

You can see a similar construction with her sister, Ethel Sailors-Mann. The obit lists Ivy's nieces and nephews, including "Gary and Ann Sailors," so it's a pretty good bet that those are Ethel's children. And it looks like Ethel remarried after their father either died or after a divorce; and since the obit says Ivy's siblings pre-deceased her, you might find more by looking for "Ethel Mann" - either her death records or an obituary of her own.

Document, Document, Document

The first thing I do when I find a new obituary is to create a "Story" in my Ancestry tree. These kinds of stories should be attached to the main person the obituary is about. I either copy the text into that Story or, if I only find a scanned image of the obituary, I upload that as a photo, and transcribe it so I have it in a text format.

( has a nice feature for clipping an obituary or other story and attaching it to the people in your Ancestry tree, but even with my World Deluxe membership, a lot of their papers are behind their paywall. If you can't afford that extra $60/year, it can be a pain to get that text, but it is worth trying. They usually have an OCR version of the page your obit appears on, though the OCR quality may not be great. Take what you can get, and just be sure to save the URL to their page, the name of the newspaper, and the date/page information so you can cite all of that as a source.)

Ancestry stories can be attached to everyone that is mentioned in the story, so I usually go through line by line and make sure that each person named in my obit is added to my tree, and then use the "Add link" to add each person to this story.

Once I've attached this obituary, with all of its sourcing information included, to all of these people, then I go to each person and add whatever facts the obit gave me about them. For example, I added Ivy's son, Harold, and attached the story to him; then I go to his Fact page, and add his wife and his 2010 residence: "Harold Borden (Pat Andrews) - S. Townsville, Ill." Then I make sure that I edit the fact and click on the Media tab to make sure that fact is associated with the obituary's Story.

I repeat this process for every fact I can extract from that obituary. For example, all I know about Ivy's brothers-in-law comes from her sister's name: "Ethel Sailors-Mann." I would add two spouses for Ethel, one "Sailors" and one "Mann," and then attach the obituary Story to each, and make sure their Name fact links to that Story. That's a lot of effort for a small fact, but if I don't get around to searching for their full names right away, I could forget where those clues came from without a proper source citation.

Trust, but Verify

If you started with the information I did, you already knew a bit about Ivy, her parents, and her siblings. Then you found this obituary, and you were probably able to add seven more people to your tree: her husband, children, grandchildren, and her sister's children. You also have a pretty good idea where those individuals were living at the time of Ivy's death.

But that's where the next round of work begins. You need to check for records to confirm all of this new information. U.S. Public Records databases in Ancestry can often verify those residences, and sometimes give you a birth date, too. You may know enough now to look for marriage records, more obituaries, and much more.

Sometimes, especially for living people, it will be hard to find this information. Respect their privacy, and protect their identities - by keeping your files private - but maybe also reach out to let them know that you're researching their family. They may ignore you, but for most families, I find that someone who has lost a parent or grandparent might be interested in learning more about their family history. Be ready to share, and don't pressure them for information until they're ready to offer it!

It's also a good idea to remember that any detail you have found could be wrong. Misspellings, incorrect dates, and other errors could always trip you up. Be flexible, and patient!

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As always, if you think you might be related to someone in the Callin Family History, I encourage you to reach out. You can comment below, join the Facebook group (link is in the right-hand column), or email my Gmail address, which is callintad.

Happy Hunting!

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