Treasure hunting in obituaries & death notices

I’ve been using newspapers a lot recently to look for death notices and obituaries. There are two main types of notice to look for:

  • A simple notice of a death and funeral arrangements
  • An obituary detailing the life of the person

This is an example of the former. It’s my 3x great-grandmother, Mary Lawless, née Swan, who died on the leap day in 1936. I wrote about her previously here. This is typical of the era. It’s short and succinct – because families inserted these notices themselves and paid for them by the word. It gives her address, birth surname and the name of her husband. 

In Dublin, even through to the modern day, newspaper notices are only a bit longer. When looking for a notice, you have to consider the political and religious affiliations of the people and the paper. Protestants and unionist leaning people favoured the Irish Times. Catholics favoured the Irish Independent, the Evening Herald or the Irish Press. All but the last are still published today.

Outside of Dublin, regional urban newspapers had a similar style of notice but are a bit longer. Here’s one from the Limerick Chronicle in 1913. It would have been done by the newspaper rather than the family. Limerick Local Studies department have a store of obituaries from that newspaper on their website, they’re alphabetised by surname and indexed by year. If you see something like ‘American newspapers please copy’, it’s probably because the deceased had family in that location.

Source: Limerick Local Studies

So far we haven’t had a vast array of genealogical content but keep watching. Here’s one I found for a very distant family member in America, which appeared in the Boston Globe in 1989. Note the different US style, which takes a bit of getting used to. A spouse’s first name is often given in brackets. This modern kind gives a huge amount of family information, and is particularly useful for building out the trees of DNA matches. In researching one of mine recently, I found the name of another which filled in a nice gap. Because Americans are quite mobile, obituaries can appear in more than one newspaper – perhaps indicating a state move in retirement or for a job.

Very large funeral procession for Michael Collins
A shot from Michael Collins’ funeral procession. Source: NLI Flickr

Newspapers also reported on the funerals of people. My ancestor, Michael Joyce, was a Member of Parliament. His funeral was written up in the Limerick papers and I was able to count dozens of named family members, along with a list of people who sent telegrams, Mass cards, etc.

The below lovely example appeared in the Nenagh Guardian in 1941 and actually noted the death of an emigrant who lived in Philadelphia mentioning family in three separate locations.

Maria Daly death notice from newspaper
Source: Irish News Archive

So where do you go to look at newspapers online?

  • The number 1 choice for Irish newspapers has to be the Irish News Archive. A huge selection of national and regional newspapers.
  • Despite the name, the British Newspaper Archive has a vast collection of Irish papers. If you have a FindMyPast subscription, you can use the BNA via their site too.
  • On Ancestry, they have a large collection of AI-created obituary databases.
  • The Ancestry-owned (requiring a separate subscription) is gold for north American records.
  • Down under, use Trove, which is free and Australian-state funded.
  • For New Zealand, use the state-run Papers Past. Thanks to Margaret for the reminder of this excellent resource!
  • For recent Irish deaths, is fantastic. A friend recently pondered if people were even dead if their notice wasn’t up yet. Schrödinger’s Death, we called it.

Of course, this is far from an exhaustive list. Let me know of any newspaper resources you’ve found useful in your own research. Has an obituary opened up a new angle? Let me know in the comments below.

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