What are obituaries?
Obituaries are short biographies written about someone who has died recently. An obituary may also be called a death notice, funeral notice, or may be in a list of names in a column labelled “Deaths.” When an obituary is first published, it is intended to inform friends, family, colleagues, and the community about a death and often include the schedule and location of the funeral service and burial. Long after the death of an individual, obituaries can be a source of biographical details and family information.
Why do people search for obituaries?
People search for obituaries for all sorts of reasons. Obituaries can provide useful information for many kinds of research: genealogy, house history, neighborhood or other local history, research about famous or notable people, and even to look up an old classmate to see if they’ll make it to the next class reunion.
Not everyone has an obituary
Keep in mind that obituaries are optional--not everyone has an obituary. Unless an individual was a well-known community member, written about by newspaper staff, it is up to the family and friends of the deceased to place an obituary or death notice. Most of the time, there is a fee associated with placing an obituary or death notice in a local newspaper, and that may stop some families from submitting one. Also, some families choose privacy and use other methods to notify friends and family of a death.
Where are obituaries published?
Often, an obituary will be in the local newspaper where the deceased most recently lived, but it may also appear in the newspaper where they previously lived, or a national newspaper if the person was a prominent figure. Since family and friends are in charge of placing an obituary, there may be other places to look for a notice. For example, an alumni association newsletter or a publication related to an organization or hobby that the individual was involved with may publish a remembrance. These days, obituaries may be published on newspaper websites, on a funeral home’s website, or may be found by searching websites that compile obituaries from a variety of online sources.
Finding obituaries at the library
The Multnomah County Library has several resources that include obituaries, both contemporary and historical, most of which require your library card and PIN/password to access.
- America's Obituaries and Death Notices: Includes obituaries and death notices from a selection of newspapers from across the United States. It’s most useful for more recent obituaries and death notices, though some sources go back to the late 1980s, beyond what a web-based search can do.
- The Oregonian Historical (1861-1987) and The Oregonian (1987-present): Both sources have local obituaries and death notices that combine to cover the time period 1861 to today.
- Historic Oregon Newspapers: Digital scans of newspapers from around Oregon from as early as 1840 through 1922. Many of these newspapers are from small towns and new titles are being added every year.
- Chronicling America: An archive of selected newspapers from many states, covering the years 1836-1922. Check out our blog post about this great resource, Chronicling America: Newspapers from 1836-1922.
- New York Times Historical (1851-2009) and New York Times (1980-present): These two resources cover the dates 1851 to the present and are good sources for obituaries of people of national and international prominence.
- Los Angeles Times: Full text of the Los Angeles Times newspaper from 1985 to today’s newspaper.
- NewsBank America's News: Like Newspaper Source, this contains selected newspapers from across the country. A good source for regional and small newspapers, though we may only have access to a limited date range.
- Newspaper Source: Like NewsBank, this contains a range of newspapers from across the country as well as a handful of international sources. This is a good source for regional and small newspapers, though we may only have access to a limited date range.
Looking for an Oregon obituary?
My colleague Emily-Jane has written a blog post about tracking down Oregon obituaries called Where is that Oregon Obituary? It's chock full of ideas about where to search for an obituary or death notice for Oregon residents.
Obituary research can be challenging, but is almost always fun and rewarding. Even if you don’t find an obituary for an individual, you’ll often learn something valuable along the way.
We love to help with your genealogy, house history, missing person, and all other types of research. If you get stuck or just want some help getting started, please contact us! Come to any branch in person or Ask the Librarian!