As I was doing so, I kept track of the process that I used and some of the tricks that I employed in trying to find them. Please note that not all of the items below occurred in sequence as I searched for the obituaries.
Please be aware that no matter how hard you try, there will be some that you jut can't find - and that is because the person's obituary was never written or published.
- I generally start "big" and then move to "small". What does this mean? Even though I know where they lived and most likely died, I try to search newspapers in the surrounding area as well. Here's an example - several hundred of my ancestors/relatives lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, thus most of their obituaries would have been most likely printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Call, or Examiner, or the Oakland Tribune - but there are many smaller newspapers in the area as well. Maybe they didn't die in their home area, maybe they were on vacation, or a business trip. I would say that up to 10% of mine were "out of town" when they died. So in this case I start with "California" as the geographical criteria to start.
The problem with searching a larger geographical area can be if they have a very common surname, the number of results that we must look through can be quite large.
- The next criteria that I adjust is the date. Depending on the site, you may be able to enter a "date range." This is useful since obituaries, especially in the 20th century, were not published on the exact date of death, but afterwards. If we know the date of death, then we can enter a range from the known death date to about two weeks after that date. We then can search the results for that much smaller time frame for our target person. If we do not know the death date, we can expand the date range.
- Once you have found the obituary - please do not neglect to search for the person for about two weeks PRIOR to the death date. If the person was well known in the community, or died as a result of an accident, there might be an article about them about an illness or an accident that contributed to their death.
- Let's discuss the names that we are searching and how we craft the search criteria for the name. I will use "Samuel Braunhart" as my example here. He has hundreds of articles that he appears in because he was a state and locally elected politician. Since "Braunhart" is not a very common name it does make our searching much easier. I start with Samuel Braunhart without quotes in the name search box. Why? Because he (or his relatives) may have appeared without the exact character string of "Samuel Braunhart". I would try "S. Braunhart" or "Sam Braunhart" or nicknames like "Sammy Braunhart" to maximize the number of results.
- If the target you are searching is a married woman, her name may be written as "Mrs. James Johnson" rather than her given name of "Rachel Johnson" or her maiden name of "Rachel Roth". If you find her obituary and her brothers are named in the obit, then you have a pretty good clue as to her maiden name if you do not know it already.
- Always search for surnames also, and narrow by dates and/or location if it is a common one. I have found a few obits this way for siblings of my target person who I didn't know had ever existed. Or children, or spouses. You get the idea.
- Try adding in the word "Beloved" or "Dear" or "Loving" to your search criteria. These are common words used in obituaries and may help you restrict your search results to only (or mostly) obituaries for those with common names.
- Deliberately misspell the name. Since Optical Character Recognition does not output 100% of the original intended text because of poor quality original newspapers or scanning limitations, the resulting index is not perfect. You can achieve up to 20% more pertinent results by misspelling on purpose. Find more about this at The ONE Absolute BEST Way to Find More Ancestor Articles in Historic Newspapers Online where you can determine which letters are commonly misread by OCR and the corresponding letter that is often substituted.
- I would say that as many as 25% of the obits that I have found in an online searchable newspaper collection are only because of browsing. That is due to the poor quality mentioned above in Item 8 or for other reasons. If you know the death date, you can browse to the Obituary or Vitals section of the target newspaper and browse the obits for the date of death and for each day in the next week or so's publications. It works!
- There are many Obituary Indexes that have been published online and are available to use. One of my favorite examples is the Ohio Obituary Index which includes about 3 million obituaries. Once you find your target person the details will show you which newspaper it was printed in and where you might get a copy (which if from a library or archive may not be free). There are tons of obituary indexes from all geographic locations that have been published online that you should look for. And as always - some are better or easier to use than others.
So there you have it - some methods and tricks to hone in on those hard to find or elusive obituaries. With a bit of persistence you can find them.