The Obituary: An Unexpected Family Tree

Once thought of as a form of small-town communication, obituaries provide valuable information for genealogists and family history enthusiasts. Obituaries are generally divided into two sections: (1) life summary of the deceased, and (2) relatives of the deceased (both living and dead). For example, here is the obituary of my grandmother, Erma Funk Lundquist, who died on October 9, 1997.

Obituary_Erma Funk
Published in the Deseret News (October 12, 1997)

As you can see, the first section provides basic facts (Erma’s birth date, place of birth, and parents’ names) – the start of a family tree without diagrams! The obituary continues by highlighting Erma’s accomplishments. We tend to focus on these details because we are drawn to stories and their emotional impact. However, if we read further, we see the family tree growing with the description of Erma’s living and deceased relatives.

Here are five reasons obituaries are extremely valuable to the family historian:

  1. They tend to be pretty accurate as they are generally written by a close family member.
  2. They sometimes reveal information previously regarded as family secrets (like an illegitimate child).
  3. They can put you in contact with living relatives who have their own family stories.
  4. They can help you document migrations of ancestors.
  5. They may clarify confusing census records.

Recently, I stumbled upon the obituary of Verl Allen Bair, who was married to my second cousin once removed, Agnes “Madge” Harris (pictured below).

Agnes Madge Harris
Agnes Madge Harris (March 11, 1925 – August 28, 1990), pictured in the center

Although Verl and Madge were on my family tree, I had no information regarding their children and grandchildren. I also lacked Madge’s death date. Thanks to the obituary (pictured below), I was able to fill in the missing pieces.

record-image_3QS7-99JB-6T5

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of obituaries. They are unexpected family trees, expressed with words only. There are numerous ways to search for obituaries; however, I have had a lot of success with FamilySearch Obituaries (https://familysearch.org/obituaries/).

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