Tips from the Pros: Is That Obituary Misleading? from Michael John Neill

Many genealogists use obituaries as a part of their research. They can easily be a clue to additional records or sources, but must be used with care. It is important to remember that the information contained in an obituary can be incorrect, misleading, or incomplete. The confusion is compounded when an obituary contains all three errors.

The deceased might have been married three times, but only the last spouse is listed in the obituary. Children of the deceased may be named, but they may not have the same set of both parents and none may be the child of the spouse listed in the obituary. Lists of children may even be incomplete, especially if there has been a family squabble or an estrangement.

Individuals listed as children may actually be step-children of the deceased. The step-parent/step-child bond may have been a very strong one and the step-parent may have been a parent to the child in all the important ways, but the obituary may not make the distinction which the genealogist typically wants to make.

And there can easily be unintentional errors due to inaccurate knowledge on the part of the obituary informant.

An obituary may be an important part of your genealogical research, but the information it contains should be used with care and as a pointer to other records. Many times the obituary’s purpose is to notify newspaper readers of the death and funeral of the deceased. Those details are usually correct; other details should be used with caution.

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21 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Is That Obituary Misleading? from Michael John Neill

  1. This is so true and sometimes, the informant embellishes with outright falsehoods. Verify, verify, verify remains the guide but valuable clues may be in the obituary.

  2. Very true about obits. The wording/grammar can lead to wrong conclusions.

    I have a question about why birth certificates of adoptees can’t include some kind of notation of adoption. One could assume a person is a child’s bio parent when they aren’t but were adopted in a remarriage situation. In this case, a whole line of genealogy doesn’t apply and another is missed. I understand the need for discretion and anonymity in many situations but isn’t this a genealogist’s nightmare?

    When my husband was a little boy, his father died. When his mother remarried, the step-dad adopted the former children. If one looks at the birth certificates, there are no indications that the step-dad is not the family line to follow. It made me wonder how many genealogists have included lines that weren’t accurate due to adoption. A little notation on an amended birth certificate would be helpful — even if it just noted that an adoption had taken place.

  3. How true. My mom passed away in March and when we were writing her obituary, we managed to mispell our eldest sister’s first name and list the wrong surname for our youngest sister (she married and divorced four times). Plus, when we counted great grandchildren, we included the two children from the second marriage of our niece’s widower. Mom treated them the same as her birth great grandchildren.

  4. Obituaries are a great find, for information, but are not always correct.

    My mother’s obituary: A very very close friend of the family needed to fly here from back east, for the funeral. The funeral home got things mixed up, I guess, and listed her as a child. It was too late to retrack, when discovered what had happened.

    My great great grandmother: She was a child of 9 when her parents died and she went to live with her aunt and uncle. The death certificate informant and Obituary informant was her second husband, who had the last names of her parents correct, but gave the aunt and uncles first names. Understandable, also take in consideration the age of the informant, who was in his late 70′s. To make matters worse, my great great grandmother’s name was Lydia Margaret, but head stone reads “Maggie”.

    So, always read between the lines. There may be more or less missing, than you think.

  5. This is so true. You need to look very carefully at the information in the obituary. Verify everything. What others have said I totally agree.

    I have seeen in recent years, that the obituaries have had better information in them.

  6. I have found this to be true. It may be the fault of the paper obit writer, or the Funeral home but i found it is the family that does it. they are under stress, and answer Question’s of the info taker, and them the family may have not good records of the person, a example is my Aunt Obit , It had her mother and fatherlisted as HER LAST NAME WRONG

  7. I have 1 obit that lists a sister as a daughter. In another case, there were 2 obits, on succeeding days, and the second one had the correct information, so if you only received the first one, you received some erronious info. You can’t completely rely on death certificates either. Sometimes the party giving the information either doesn’t know or is under duress. Both of my parents death certificates have errors on them — we gave correct info but funeral home/nursing home made error — one was name misspelling and the other was on cause of death.

  8. I have seen several obits recently with a divorced spouse listed as the spouse as if they had never divorced.

  9. I love finding an obit but the writer is quite correct about the accuracy. When my mother passed away in 1998, my dad insisted that her mother’s name was not spelled Zorada … I forget now what he provided to the paper — it was close but not right. I tried to correct but he became so upset that I dropped it. So sometimes when you are on the scenes of the error, you still can’t correct. It was more important for my dad to feel right about the wrong detail than it was for me to get the correct entry in the paper. [Oh, I couldn't submit a correction either. He read that paper EVERY day. A correction later would have been worse than insisting on the right entry in the first place.]

  10. Great article with right on advice. I have used obituaries quite a bit in by family research quest, however, I use obits with caution and/or as starting point source as you indictated. For example, my great-great grandfather’s obituary says he “was a Kectuckian by birth”, yet after a couple decades of searching I have yet to find documentation which will confirm or deny this statement. All census records in which he and great-great grandmother appear say his birthplace was Indiana. I would love to find a piece of evidence that will tell me Granddad’s lineage prior to those census records.
    In another recent example, I had someone send me an obituary that opened a door that lead me to find about 20-30 relatives who had homesteaded in California.
    One never know how and where obituary research can help.

  11. As the informant for my grandmother’s obit and my father’s obit, I can attest to the fact that the informant may not always have the correct information. My grandmother had, at various times, given me different information about her parents and my father’s father. Since I began researching my family’s genealogy, I’ve learned the “mistakes” Nana made when telling me about our family. It turns out that her “maiden” name was actually her mother’s maiden name and my father’s father’s given name was actually her father’s given name! Lesson learned — do not be content that you have all the information there is to know about your ancestors. Keep Digging!

  12. I wrote the obituary for my mother-in-law & the undertaker sent it to the newspaper. He also sent me a copy, having my email. It listed only survived by 2 grandchildren instead of 16. Luckily, we were able to correct it before it went to the paper, but only b/c he had my email! On another note, a friend went to a 50th anniversary party where the happy couple announced at their party that they were divorcing! It completely split the family, with the result that when one spouse died, only their “supporters” were listed! So you never know!!

  13. I have an obit for my wife’s grandfather, showing his wife as living in another town. After learning from a cousin that the town was home to two sisters-in-law, I realized that the typesetter ended a line with the wife’s name, then skipped the line naming her relatives, and set the line with the sisters’ home town. Coincidently, the wife died in that same town, years later, while visiting a sister!
    Don’t forget that in the 18- and early 1900s, divorce was stigmatized. One or both ex-spouses were likely to list themselves in census, and by children in the obit, as “widowed.” One of my own great-grandaprents did exactly that.

  14. When my uncle died his widow completely ignored the fact he still had a sister (my mother) and another brother living. She also listed him as having 3 surviving sons, 2 of which were actually hers by a former marriage.

  15. Yes obituaries can be a problem but they are one more source in the giant puzzle of genealogy family research. I have had some that did not help at all and some that helped a great deal. I have had some even with pictures of family members and some with incorrect or very poor information. Like everything else you need to get a variety of resources and usually they all are all 100% accurate or helpful. My plusses greatly exceeded my negatives but I always never assume they are 100% accurate but give me more information to lump together for the best final determination of genealogy reserach.

  16. Obits are great sources of info but I have one for my great uncle that doesn’t have all the death and funeral info. I had to do some calendar searching to find what year he died. The obit said “died Saturday at the age of 63″ and he was born 1904. The funeral was on a Tuesday, August 1. Also some of the survivor info was not completely correct. His surviving brothers were listed as Grant, Reo, Charles, and Ervin. My grandfather was Earl Ervin. The obit has lots of clues but very few actual details. Like everyone in geneology always says, check, double check and then look again.

  17. Obits are great even with errors. I recently put together a family history using Family Tree. I used the “notes” section to include the obits word by word. Not knowing all the family members I asked the to make correction and let me know later the corrections as I would “note” them in the next copy. So far I’v received some good results. Hope this might help.

  18. Always re=check info in an obit. When my father died (age 90), my son misspelled his middle name, in trying to correct same, I got it misspelled another way! Also, the paper would only list blood relatives, so I put my widowed sister-in-law in it as my sister. I wasn’t about to leave her out!

  19. My husband’s great grandfather’s obituary provided an important clue about his heritage. Mary HUNT was listed as the name of his mother. His mother’s first name was Mary, but the surname listed was that was that of his grandmother, Hannah HUNT. I thought that his grandmother was Hannah HUNT, but this was the first time I actually thought I was definitely on the right trail.

  20. My husband’s unmarried great grand uncle’s obituary was written with incorrect information and if it hadn’t been for this, I would never have discovered the actual circumstances of his death.
    His death registration had named a place away from his known address and all his personal information which was completed by an unknown person was correct. I also had a copy of the funeral home bill which contained a charge for a hearse “to pick up the body from the overnight steamer”. I’d never questioned his place of death as we knew that he’d been an adventurer exploring for coal deposits and as his cause of death was listed as Exhaustion, assumed he’d worked himself to death. While looking for another obit, I decided that I’d see if there was one for him as this would complete his file. Much to my surprise, it read “suddenly at the family residence”.
    With this conflicting information, I thought that something is definitely wrong here maybe even fishy. Knowing that the Provincial Mental Hospital was located in the city listed for his death, I contacted their Archives Dept. and there was his file covering his 8 year confinement including details of his death. I was able to obtain a full copy of this file.
    The family had obviously tried to conceal the fact of his whereabouts.

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