Obituaries and death notices are a common quest in genealogy research. It is easiest to find obituaries when you know the date and place of death. The majority of the library's newspaper collection is on microfilm, which is searched manually and is not keyword searchable.
Some things to keep in mind:
These are some steps you can follow while researching at the Boston Public Library. You can find detailed information on these steps below.
If you are having trouble finding an obituary, take a look at the last box on this page, Help! I can't find an obituary.
To find a death date and location, you will usually want to look for a death record. Death certificates are what you're probably most familiar with, and they're a type of "vital record," which are government records related to vital events (such as birth, marriage, and death). For this research, keep in mind that a "death record" is not necessarily a death certificate. This term can mean a variety of records, such as death certificates, obituary indexes, and church records. Where to find a death record varies based on where and when the person died. Some records have been digitized and are available online. For items that are not online, you will have to contact the government agency that holds them.
The reason you want a death date is to guide you to possible resources that could have an obituary. Ideally, you want a specific death date, but the more you can narrow your search the easier your research will be.
You also need a death location to know where to look for obituaries. Ideally, you want a specific city or town, but knowing the state can help you find a death record. Most obituaries are located in newspapers around the place of death; however, there are cases where a person is from a different area, and the family places an obituary in the hometown.
In Massachusetts, death records date back to the 1600s, and these were done by cities and towns. Death records were not kept on the state level until 1841. Keep in mind that a "death record" is not necessarily a death certificate. This term can mean a variety of records, such as death certificates, obituary indexes, and church records.
Important years for Massachusetts death records:
~1630 - The earliest records kept in Massachusetts. These were kept by individual cities and towns.
1841 - Massachusetts began keeping vital records on the state level. Up until this year, they will only be kept on the local level.
1935 - The Social Security Death Index is a federal database that begins in 1935. The majority of records available are from 1962 on.
Free online resources for death records:
Hard copy death records:
If you cannot find a death record online, you can try to locate a hard copy version. This will mean contacting the archives or government department that holds the record and usually includes a fee.
First, it is useful to go over how death certificates are kept in Massachusetts. Some Massachusetts city/ town clerks have kept death records since the 1600s. Since 1841, there has been a statewide system to save vital records. The clerk transfers a copy or the original (depending on the year) to the state, and the clerk maintains their own records locally. Of these state-held records, more recent vital records are kept at the Registry of Vital Records, and the Massachusetts State Archives holds older records. See the exact dates below. This means that a city/town clerk should, in theory, have all the death records for that municipality. The state will have smaller collections, and these collections are especially useful because you do not need to know the exact city of a death to request records.
Here is an overview of where you can find death records in Massachusetts, based on the year of the death:
1600s to 1840: City/town clerks, which you can find using this directory
1841 to 1925: Massachusetts State Archive and city/town clerks
1926 to present: Registry of Vital Records and city/town clerks
In the United States, individual states have their own procedures for handling vital records. The state someone died in decides what dates of vital records were kept, which collections are online, and where they are physically housed. Keep in mind that a "death record" is not necessarily a death certificate. This term can mean a variety of records, such as death certificates, obituary indexes, and church records.
Step 1: Find out what state the person died in
Believe it or not, there's no federal program that tracks all deaths in the United States. Federal departments that track deaths only track certain people, such as military personnel or claims for Social Security. States have their own processes for how they have kept vital records, which varies greatly among states.
If you have no idea where someone died, there are some strategies to finding a death location. You can search in a database that contains a lot of different records, such as Ancestry Library Edition. You can search in federal collections, such as the Social Security Death Index. You can also use other resources to approximate a location, such as the census or city directories.
Some helpful online resources are:
Step 2: Search online
Once you know what state someone died in, you can see what records are available online. One place to start is the FamilySearch wiki on How to Find United States Death Records. These pages will tell you where and when records were held for each specific state.
Another way to look for online records is to do a good old Google search. If you search for the state and the keywords you're looking for, you can usually find online collections and guides. For example, you could search for "Rhode Island death records" or "Rhode Island vital records." You could find collections on websites like FamilySearch or Ancestry.com (you can then use Ancestry Library Edition at the library), and you could also find the vital records office for that state.
Step 3: Hard copy records
If you cannot find a death record online, you can try to locate a hard copy. This will mean contacting the archives or government department that holds the record and usually includes a fee. If you have no idea where to look, a good place to start is the city or town clerk local to the record you want. You can usually find the contact information for them on Google by searching for the town and city clerk, such as "Boston city clerk." It will be a government website.
Resources to help locate hard copy records:
How to Find United States Death Records: On this wiki from FamilySearch, select the state you want and then you can see what records are available. They will usually link to government departments.
Where to Write for Vital Records: This website from the CDC has instructions on how to order vital records for every state, as well as for U.S. territories.
The Boston Public Library has a variety of online resources you can use for obituary research. Online resources are valuable because they are keyword searchable. This means you can type in search terms, such as names, without searching the newspapers manually. You might also want to take a look at the online resources page of our newspaper research guide. Keep in mind that while we have these databases, the majority of our newspaper collection is on microfilm.
Most of these databases can be used from home by logging in with your library card number and 4-digit PIN. Ancestry Library Edition must be used on a library computer or on our wi-fi using your own device.
Not all of these resources will contain the full obituaries. Ancestry Library Edition has a variety of collections, including obituaries. It can also include index entries, which can tell you where and when an obituary was published. You can also use it to search for death dates, so you can know which databases or microfilm to research. Boston Obituary Database is an index, which means it will tell you where and when the obituary was published. You can then use this information to find the obituary in a database or microfilm.
A number of free resources with obituaries are available outside the Boston Public Library.
Most of the library's newspaper collection is on microfilm. Microfilm is a reel of film with images of the newspapers. Microfilm is used because it takes up a small amount of space and is more durable than paper. Researching microfilm is like reading the newspaper; it is not keyword searchable. When you request microfilm, you request specific newspaper titles and dates.
Our newspaper research guide is the easiest way to see what titles we have on microfilm. You can see lists of titles based on location, from Boston to Massachusetts to the United States. A small number of our newspapers have indexes, which would tell you where to look for an obituary.
You can learn about using microfilm on this guide.
Steps for searching for an obituary in microfilm:
If you've struck out with your research, there are some strategies you can try next. One thing to consider is that, unfortunately, not everyone had an obituary. If you have tried different strategies to search for an obituary with no luck, it is possible one was not published.
Some tips for advanced obituary research: