Tips from the Pros: Contacting Funeral Home Directors

from Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak 

Thinking of approaching a funeral home director for help with your roots?  Not all are keen on genealogists (and some have privacy policies), but many are very helpful.  Try calling first to learn the basics – whether they respond to requests, what details are needed to conduct a search (their records might be organized by name or date, and they often have a card or computer file that leads them to more detailed records – a multi-step process for them), and any fees that might be involved.  Then follow up with a letter as instructed – and be specific about what you’d like.  It used to be common practice for funeral homes to place obituaries, so some have family fact sheets on the deceased, but they’re not apt to send a copy unless you request it.  At a minimum, ask for the cemetery involved, names of survivors, and the person who paid for the funeral.

Be patient, as some long-established homes may store older records in a basement or even offsite.  And don’t give up if the funeral home you seek no longer exists.  Try calling a couple of the other local funeral homes, as well as cemeteries and libraries in the area, to see what might have happened to their records.  The files you want may well be in the possession of a former competitor (mergers are common) or at the local historical or genealogical society. 

Finally, be nice!  Remember, another genealogist might want to contact the same funeral home director, so send a thank you note to let them know their assistance is appreciated.

Megan's websiteTo contact Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak or learn more about her upcoming speaking engagements, visit http://www.genetealogy.com and http://www.honoringourancestors.com.  

10 thoughts on “Tips from the Pros: Contacting Funeral Home Directors

  1. By contacting funeral homes listed in older obituaries I have gleaned a great deal of information. They have all been very kind and either sent copies of funeral planning sheets or given me the information over the telephone. With the exception of my home town, where the funeral director apparently tossed all files when he sold the business. I was very sad at that.

    Eileen Holt

  2. I am still pretty new to genealogy and contacting cemeteries is something that I have only done once. I must admit I was a little intimidated, I went to visit the cemetery where I knew my grandparents were buried (about a 30 minute drive from my home) and had planned on getting general information about several relatives… however, they since it took them about 15 minutes just to locate the plot for my grandparents, I decided not to ask for any additional names… I did “peek” at the book they were looking names up in and saw several other relatives in there! I think I will make a second trip up there to ask about another family name soon. I guess my question to the community is whether there are standard protocols or rules of engagement when visiting a cemetery for genealogical purposes? Do most cemeteries welcome visitors of this nature or are we viewed more as pests? I want to be respectful and not a burden to their time, but also I feel if they just published this information on the internet or had a directory available onsite, then I wouldnt have to “bug” them so to speak (not to mention the fact that these ARE my relatives)… Am I just being paranoid have others confronted this same dilemma?

  3. Jon your best bet is to contact the cemetery a few days before our planned visit requesting the location of family your looking for.

    I have had great response from funeral homes about records, I have a fax machine at home and so far all of the funeral homes have faxed the records to me. if you don’t know the funeral home and can’t locate an obit, ask at the cemetery alot of them have a record of the funeral home used.

  4. Do funeral directors need to put their records someplace; the funeral home my family used was very small and closed 30 years ago. Thank you

  5. Just a Thank You for giving direction on the Funeral Homes!!
    I use them for work for a police dept, but I also have never had a problem, connected to my geno for local museum research,adn for the town historian…
    As you said:: Call first,you are so perfectly correct!!
    Thank You again
    Becky Hall

  6. I also have had good luck with the funeral homes. The two I have contacted have been more than happy to send me not only what I requested but also much more. I found a whole new branch of my family by reading the information from the funeral home and learning an uncles place of birth. I checked the census records and there they were. Another funeral home recommended a book that had just been published about the town and she took the time to see that a number of my family members were listed and had biographies in the book.Excellent advise.

  7. I have had good luck with funeral homes in small towns/counties. They are very helpful in providing information. What I do is write a letter to the funeral home, stating as much info as I have in my records. Sometimes that is only a surname. Try to be as specific as you can. I also include a check written out to the Funeral Home for their time and help (and any copy costs) – usually about $10-15.

    Be sure to thank them afterwards! This makes it easier for the next person requesting records =)

  8. I helped my wife with her mother’s funeral the week of April 10, 2006. While talking with the funeral home representative my wife asked about looking up information on deceased relatives. She was told that although the funeral home used to open their books for people to look up information on past funerals, they no longer do this due to HIPAA requirements for privacy. The only information she can get is whatever the family decided to post in the obituary. Their online obituaries are accessible only via the Internet, and only go back to 2002 or 2003. Another roadblock thanks to identity theft perpetrators!

  9. I have been extremely lucky with funeral home of all sizes, even those in Milwukee and Chicago, believe it or not. And the Chicago funeral home actually sent back the check I had included for copies and postage.

    They both gave me family information and the needed obits I had requested. As long as you are polite, short and to the point without going into your family history, I’ve found they will help you.

    The medium and smaller funeral home, I’ve found will usually help. Although, there have been several that some family say are private family records. These were family-owned funeral homes. I also know of one very old cemetery in which the caretaker will no longer share the records, so we have nothing to compare records with. The caretakers considers the records his/her private property. That cemetery has been deteriorating rapidly over the years. Sorry, I digress…

    I have had wonderful success with them and wish you the best!
    Peg

  10. Carol,
    The funeral home records for 30 yrs ago should be stored somewhere, usually with another funeral director,

    back in the 1940′s we had 2 funeral homes close and there wasn’t a law about keeping records so both funeral home records have been lost

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