02 December 2015

How Obituaries (Both Old and Recent) Can Be a Boon to Your House History

As I have posited previously, the people who have owned, occupied, or even rented your house as tenants in the past are collectively what comprise the soul of your house's historical story. Aside from tracking down and investigating the physical history of your house as an object, it is the historical lives of the home's people who will really enrich your research beyond a mere statement of facts. Thus, we will seek out information about their lives as best we can. Once you have completed your house's (land's) chain of title, you are left with a list of previous owners to research further. There are many genealogical sources upon which you can draw to reconstruct the lives of these owners and other occupants, and one important one is published obituaries or death notices of previous occupants. While obituaries are a common source for genealogy research, there is also a very specific way these articles can aid a house history research by leading you to living people who can possibly act as further sources of information.

What Will You Find?

The long and the short of it is that you just don't know what exact information you might find until you locate the obituary. You may find alot or you may find not much at all described in the obit-- but that's the reason to look! There is one important clarification of terminology here. Although often grouped collectively under the term "obituary", death notices and obituaries are two different types of articles. A death notice is a usually somewhat brief formal announcement of a person's death, stating the primary facts as provided by the deceased's family. They often state such things as when the person died, potentially where he/she passed away (such as at his home), when and where he was born and/or raised, who his survivors are, perhaps a brief statement of his previous occupation(s), funeral specifics, and often interment location. A true obituary, on the other hand, is a more lengthy article written as a profile piece, often by a newspaper writer using information provided by the family. A true obituary is not paid for, as a death notice is, and is published at the discretion of the publishing entity (i.e. newspaper). For fairly obvious reasons, they can be a wealth of information, providing you a detailed account of the subject person's life in narrative form. Most past persons which you are researching will be documented in death notices; not in a true obituary which are in much, much fewer number. Please note that for the duration of this article, I will use the term "obituary" to also mean a death notice, as is commonly done.

Looking to the Past - Information on Former Occupants

For your house history research, you should now have a list of previous owners obtained in your title searches (if not, read here). I have gathered a list of 7 married couples who held ownership of my home or it's land since this home lot was created in a land subdivision (earlier owners of the larger land tract, of course, should ideally also be researched). Obituaris should be sought for all 14 persons. The 2002 death notice of Catherine Cantlin (the longtime matriarch of the home from c. 1932 to 2001) tells me that she was born in the city of Philadelphia, lived her life primarily as a homemaker, and passed away at a nursing home not far from the home she loved. I've also learned here that her maiden name was Stearn, that she is buried at the large Catholic cemetery a few miles away, and that her husband John and two of their children preceded her in passing.

Death notice of Catherine Cantlin, published 2002 in The Times-Chronicle.
Don't forget to search for obituaries for other relatives who may have also occupied the home, such as the owner's children. From census records, I've learned that John and Catherine had three children: Jean (aka Claire, born c. 1927), John Jr. (born c. 1929), and Robert (born c. 1934), all of whom lived in the home during their childhood. To date, I have located the death notices for one of these three children. While you will not always find staggeringly interesting or noteworthy information, these bits of information will help you reconstruct the lives of these people along with other sources. They lived in your house after all!

Before we leave the "Ghost of Cantlins Past", a note that extended family should not be dismissed. Again, through census records, it was not difficult to determine the parents of John Cantlin as James and Sarah Cantlin, Irish immigrants. Locating the death notice of Sarah Cantlin from 1944 yielded that a remembrance service for her was conducted at my house! The discovery of events such as this which took place at the house can really bring to life to your house's story.

Death notice of Sarah Cantlin, published July 26, 1944 in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This informs me that a portion of her funeral services were conducted in my house.

Looking in the Present - Finding Living House History Sources

Allow me to stress that the greatest value you might get from a thorough obituary search is by locating living descendants of those associated with your house. Obituaries, in combination with current public records, phone books, and maybe even Facebook, can lead you to people who are alive and who just might be able to tell you something of interest about your house.

Consider again the Cantlin family. The long-time owners of my house, John and Catherine, passed away in 1961 and 2002, respectively. Their three children have all also passed away, the last of which in 2008. Through searching for other obituaries within this family, I came upon one for another family member who passed away in 2007. It turns out that this obit was in reference to John Jr's son (John Sr's grandson). Examining this obituary reveals names of several living descendants of John and Catherine, including two daughters-in-law and four now-adult grandchildren. These are all potentially persons whom I can respectfully contact and ask if they are willing to share any memories, either of the house itself or of these folks John and Catherine, whom I have thus far only come to know on paper. This single obituary is the key to a potential bonanza for the house history.

Sources for Obituaries and Death Notices

There are many potential sources for finding obituaries. I preface this by saying that aside from doing a "blind" name search somewhere, it is generally most helpful to track down the date of death of the person first. This can admittedly take some time and further research, especially for those who passed prior to the information age resulted in an online footprint of virtually everybody. This is where using Ancestry or another online or offline genealogy family tree will come in handy, as many of these put clues and source documents right in front of you. I will get into this topic more another time.

The first and most logical place to start searching for obituaries is in newspaper archives. One can usually pretty easily search many newspapers online for obituaries which are only a few years old. A daily-increasing amount of historical newspapers are being digitized and placed on websites such as Genealogy Bank, Google Newspaper Archives, and Newspapers.com.  However, still, most often you will need to head to a local library to view past issues of newspapers on microfilm (I personally, even as a Millennial, am incredibly thankful that my research has forced me to use such great resources as the local library).

Other sources might include less-obvious places such as social clubs or fraternal organizations. However, unless you knew the person, you likely do not know of their involvement in such an organization until you find, ahem, their obituary. Still, even if you learn of it after the fact, sometimes you can find old meeting minutes or newsletters of such organizations which might include a brief biographical sketch around the time of death of a member, yielding more information than a standard death notice.

Funeral homes are another source, as they often even assist with the obituary publishing process. Nowadays, many funeral homes include current and recent obituaries on their website. For older obituaries, you might consider contacting local funeral homes in the area where the person lived to see if they handled that person's funeral and if they have an obituary on file.

Lastly (and this list is not meant to be exhaustive), there is www.findagrave.com. This is an online search catalog of virtual "memorials" which correspond to real gravesites in real cemeteries. The information is entirely comprised of user-submitted contributions, but it has a tremendous following and, to date, over 138 million grave records, growing daily. Some of these virtual memorials include the text of the deceased person's published obituary, with the source listed. The percentage which include obituary information is small, and one must fact check a source like this, but I have come across it enough to cause me to check the site when looking for an obituary.

Good luck finding all those obituaries!

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