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Genealogy

Resources for researching your ancestors and your family history

Obituary Research

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.Obituaries, deaths

Some things to keep in mind:

  • This guide will use the term "obituary" to mean all notices placed in a newspaper after a death. You might want to note that there is a difference between obituaries and death notices. Obituaries are usually written by newspaper staff and tend to be longer. Death notices are classifieds that are placed in the newspaper, usually by a family member, and tend to be shorter. This distinction matters most when searching indexes or databases, when death notices are sometimes not included.
  • The information in obituaries varies over time. Older obituaries (early 1900s and before), usually do not include as much information as current ones. One reason is because older obituaries served a specific purpose - to be a notification of a death and the funeral service. More recent obituaries are intended as both a notification and an homage to the deceased.
  • It is common to have to look in several titles when searching for obituaries. Unless you know the exact newspaper title it was published in, there can be different options. A city or town might have had more than one newspaper at the time, or an obituary could be published in a neighboring city or town.
  • You can sometimes find other articles reported in a newspaper about a death, such as an accident or homicide.

Search Steps

These are some steps you can follow while researching at the Boston Public Library. You can find detailed information on these steps below.

  1. Locate a death date. Ideally, you want an exact death date. At the least, you want a small enough timeframe that you can narrow down the resources you want to use.
  2. Locate a death location. This can be the location of the death or where the person was from, which is where an obituary might have been published. This information will help you know what resources to look in.
  3. Search in online resources. Many people like to start searching in online resources because many can be used from home and are keyword searchable.
  4. Search in microfilm. Microfilm is in-library use at Central, and researching it is like reading the newspaper. It is best to have an exact death date to search in it. 

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.

Steps 1 and 2: Locating a Death Date and Location

location iconTo 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:
Greetings from Massachusetts~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.

Steps:

  1. Find out what state the person died in.
  2. Search online: A lot of people like to begin this research using online resources. Research what collections are available for that date and place online.
  3. Hard copy records: If what you need isn't online, find out where hard copy vital records for the date would be held.

A new map of the United States of AmericaStep 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:

  • Ancestry Library Edition: A searchable database you have to use at the Boston Public Library. This database has an extensive collection of vital records.
  • FamilySearch: A free genealogy website with a variety of genealogy records. You have to create an account to see many collections.
  • FamilySearch wikis: These guides contain a wealth of information, and there are many on vital records research.
  • Graves: Find A Grave and Legacy are websites with information about graves, which will usually list a death date or partial death date.
  • Social Security Death Index: on HeritageQuest (log in with your library card number and PIN) and on FamilySearch. This collection is also in Ancestry Library Edition. This collection contains millions of records from 1935 to 2014, although most of the records are after 1962. Individuals in this collection had social security numbers, and their deaths were reported to the Social Security Administration.
  • Vital Records: This page on the National Archives website has a list of federal resources for vital records. This page can give you an idea of some collections to research.

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.
 

Step 3: Online Resources

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. 

Step 4: Microfilm

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.

MicrofilmYou can learn about using microfilm on this guide.

Steps for searching for an obituary in microfilm:

  1. Use the death date and location to create a list of newspapers an obituary could be in. To do this, look at newspapers in or near the location of death, and look for titles with the correct date. If you can't look for titles from home, you can also do this step at the library.
  2. Come to Central with your library card or research card and go to the Research Services desk in Bates Hall, which is the reading room on the second floor of the McKim Building.
  3. Fill out a request slip for each title you want to see. If you don't know the exact date an obituary was published in, request at least several days following the death. 
  4. You will be logged onto a computer, and library staff will retrieve your microfilm.
  5. When your microfilm arrives, library staff can show you how to use the microfilm readers.
  6. Looking at the film, you will probably want to start looking in the issue on the day the person died. If the newspaper has an index on the first or second page, that should tell you on what page "deaths," "death notices," or "obituaries" are located. If the newspaper doesn't have an index, look slowly through the newspaper until you find them.
  7. Death notices will usually be a long list organized by last name. Obituaries are usually separate from death notices, on a different part of the page or even on a separate page. 
  8. If you find the obituary you're looking for, you can save a digital file for free or print them for 15 cents per page.

Help! I can't find an obituary.

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:

  • question marksReconsider the location an obituary might be published. If you've checked the newspapers in the city where the person died, think about if the person was from a different area. An obituary might have been published in their hometown. If there was a newspaper published in a neighboring city, especially a larger city, you can also try there.
  • Was there a big news story when the person died? If it was during a big news story, such as a war or other big event, an obituary might not be published or could be delayed.
  • Obituaries for active military can take time to publish. If the person died in a war, it could take a long time (weeks, months, or even years) for news of the death to travel to their next of kin. There can also be so many deaths that not all of them have obituaries. For military deaths in Massachusetts, you can try searching in a big database like the Boston Globe. Casualty lists were sometimes published, and this can give you an idea of when news reached the family.
  • Was the local newspaper published weekly? If the funeral was being held before the next issue, the family might not have published an obituary.
  • 1950s and before will have fewer obituaries as you go back in time. Obituaries as we know them were less common. When people had death notices, those would contain less information than a full obituary. 
  • Early 1900s and before, obituaries will mostly be for famous people. Newspapers back then were quite small because the type was set by hand. Obituaries were not something published for regular people. Even if there isn't an obituary, you might find an article written about a shocking or scandalous death.
    • Also, older newspapers will not have a separate obituary section, which is a pretty new concept, and you will probably have to look all around the newspaper. When there was an obituary, it would be tucked in wherever they could fit it in.