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May 2011 Newsletter

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How to Read Obituaries

Along with birth announcements and marriage notices, obituaries are an important genealogy resource found in newspapers that can help you with your family history research. Once you've found them, however, what's the best way to glean all the information you possibly can from an obituary? (For an illustrated, step-by-step explanation of how to find obituaries, read the article "Finding All the Obituaries and Death Records in GenealogyBank" from our January 2011 newsletter.)

You will want to closely read every word of an obituary for the facts and clues that it provides for documenting your family history. This article will examine an actual obituary in detail, and show you how much information you can learn from it.

Here is a typical obituary notice. It was printed by the Charlotte Observer on Nov. 30, 1920:

What can we learn about James Edward Craig's life and family from his obituary? Let's start with the first section of this obituary and work our way through it:

  • Name: James Edward Craig. Obituaries are a good source to obtain your ancestor's full name, which can be very helpful with future searches.
  • Date of death: "Friday." Since the newspaper was printed on Nov. 30, 1920, a quick check of a perpetual calendar shows that the 30th was a Tuesday—and the previous Friday was Nov. 26, 1920. Now we have the exact date of his death.

  • Place of death: Obituaries often give the exact location of the death. In this example it says: "at his home in Chester" (South Carolina).
  • Age: 74 years old.
  • Family: We learn his son's full name (Arthur Roseborough Craig) and place of residence (Charlotte, North Carolina).
  • Military career: The headline tells us James Craig was a Civil War veteran.
  • Funeral: It was held "Saturday," which was Nov. 27, 1920, at the Presbyterian Church in Chester, South Carolina. This is an excellent clue for where you should look for further information. You will want to see what other milestones/events the family celebrated or held at this church, such as baptisms, marriages, and other family funerals.
  • Cemetery: Another great clue. The obituary states that he was buried in the "family plot in Chester." You will want to locate this cemetery to find more information about the other family members buried there.
That's a lot of information, just from the headlines and first paragraph! Let's see what more we can find out:

  • Born: "He was born in Fairfield County, S.C."
  • Marriage: This obituary gives his wife's maiden name (Sarah J. Hicklin), a very helpful piece of information. It also tells us that she was "of York County."
  • Family: "To them were born eleven children, all of who are living." We also learn another detail about the son mentioned in the opening paragraph: Arthur Craig was "the second son."
  • Military career: Here we learn some interesting details about James Craig's service in the Civil War. He fought for the Confederacy, having joined the army in South Carolina. He served for the duration of that bloody four-year conflict. Since he was 74 at the end of 1920, he was born in 1846—this means that when the Civil War began in 1861, he joined the fighting at the tender age of 15.
  • Church service: Mr. Craig is called "one of the prominent men of his section." We are also told that "He had been a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church for many years." This is another good indication that there will be records about this family at the Presbyterian Church in Chester, South Carolina.
  • Heritage: "He was of the Scotch-Irish stock which settled this section of North Carolina and upper South Carolina."
  • Ancestors: We learn that "His grandfather was a patriot in the Revolutionary army." This is a fantastic family clue. Not only does it tell us that the Craigs were in America since at least the 1770s, but it points to an additional search: with a little more digging, you can find the grandfather's name—then you will want to contact the National Archives and obtain a copy of his service papers:
We've already learned so much—and we still have two more paragraphs to go! Let's see what else we can find out about James Craig and his family:

  • Social standing: Once again, we are told that Mr. Craig was well respected. Earlier, we learned that he was "one of the prominent men of his section" and "a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church"; now we are told that he "was among the most esteemed citizens of upper South Carolina."
  • Family: "He is survived by his wife and their eleven children and four grandchildren." This certainly helps set a course for additional family history explorations: we have 16 more family members to research. And to help with that research, the final paragraph of the obituary is a gold mine:
  • Children: Obituaries give good information and clues like the names and relationships of close relatives and where they currently live. Notice how the family had spread throughout the South. By including the term "Miss" we know which of the daughters were not married:
    • J. H. Craig, of Chattanooga
    • Miss Margaret Craig, of Cardenas, Cuba, where she
      is a missionary of the Southern Presbyterian Church
    • Arthur R. Craig, of Charlotte
    • Dr. S. Douglas Craig, of Winston-Salem
    • Miss Rebecca Craig, of Spartanburg, S.C.
    • S. L. Craig, of Atlanta
    • J. E. Craig, of Charleston, West Virginia
    • Miss Susie Craig, of Chester
    • Miss Sarah Craig, of Chester
    • W. L. Craig, of Chester
    • Alex B. Craig, of Chester
As you can see, a close reading of an obituary can provide an incredible amount of family history. We've learned a great deal about James Craig himself—and we have learned about his ancestors and surviving family, with enough clues to suggest several additional searches we can perform. Obituaries do far more than tell you about the deceased—they provide a springboard to push you off into other searches, perhaps in unexpected places.

GenealogyBank has over 130 million obituaries and death records contained in our collection of more than 5,000 digitized newspapers, with coverage from 1690 to today. Have fun searching—and good luck with your family history research!