Obits add facts that widen searches

Obituaries are more than a memoriam to the deceased and public notice of the time and place of the funeral. These thumbnail sketches of a person's life provide solid clues for conducting more research. That's why they remain a staple among genealogical resources.

This obituary appeared in the Trenton, N.J., Evening Times on Thursday, June 3, 1948:

Martin A. McGarry

BURLINGTON - Martin A. McGarry, an employee of the U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company died in Jewish Hospital, Philadelphia, Monday night after a brief illness. He was a member of the Holy Name Society of St. Paul's Church and of Scully-Bozarth Post, VFW.

Mr. McGarry is survived by his wife, Mrs. Lena Palma McGarry; three sons: Thomas, William and James; his mother Mrs. Mary Foy McGarry and three sisters, all of Burlington.

The funeral will be held from his home at Sluice Road and Lincoln Avenue at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Requiem mass will be celebrated in St. Paul's Church at 10 a.m. Interment will be at St. Paul's Cemetery.

Barely 100 words long, but this biography is replete with information. By knowing he was Catholic, attended St. Paul's and was buried in the cemetery, you can request church records and see if his tombstone bears his birth date. He belonged to the VFW, so he served in the military. The VFW post might have some useful information. (McGarry served in World War I. A microfilm copy of his draft registration card is at the New Jersey State Library.) Be sure to check for a will and probate records at the county courthouse.

By far, two of the more valuable pieces of data are his wife's and mother's unmarried names. Contemporary obituaries often omit women's birth names. And with so many blended families, you can't assume that a woman's birth surname is the same as the men's who appear as brothers in her obit.

To start your obit quest, figure out which newspaper was published where the deceased lived. Two newspapers? Look at both. One may print details the other doesn't. No idea what newspapers were circulating during that time? Locate a copy of American Newspapers 1821-1936: A Union List published by Kraus Reprint Corp. or Checklist of American 18th Century Newspapers in the Library of Congress by John Van Ness.

Back issues of most major newspapers are on microfilm and usually available for viewing at the largest local public library. College and university libraries, state archives and historical societies are other possible sources. If the paper is still operating, call the library or records department to ask where the archives are kept.

Once you've located the archives, scan several days , starting with the day the person died. . If it's a weekly paper, go through two or three editions. Don't stop with the first obit you find. An expanded version might surface in the next issue.

Researching from afar? Few repositories maintain a surname index to obituaries, but most will do a look-up for a small fee if you know the death date. Make your request by writing a brief letter, giving the person's name, death date and where they lived. If there's a fee include that amount and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, although some libraries will send an invoice with the obituary. Documentation is essential. Ask that the day, date, page number, name and location of the newspaper be included with the response.

Many online sites - including both www.genlookups.com and www.genforum.com - carry obituaries. Try public and university libraries and county genealogy sites, too. Some newspaper Web sites include searchable archives that date back a decade or more.

Use any information gleaned from an obituary as a guideline because the data is only as reliable as the memory of the person who provided it. It's up to you to verify the facts.

Copyright © 2002 Donna Murray Allen. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission