An obituary can provide truly unique insights into your family’s past, and are a great way to add details and richness to the individuals in your family tree. They are also a wonderful way to discover more about a person who has passed more recently. And a surprising number of sites offer a free obituary search, along with access to original scanned records.
Whether you’re hoping to find the obituary, death or funeral notice of someone dear to you, or to uncover more facts about an ancestor, the following guide will help you locate the records you’re looking for.
Where can I search for free obituaries online?
Nearly all obituary databases, as well as collections containing them, will allow you to search their records at no cost. The real question is “How can I find free obituary records?” because this can be a bit more challenging.
While sites like Ancestry.com will allow you to search their obituary database for free, you’ll have to pay to view any actual notices you find. But there are many sites where you’ll be able to search and view records without a cost.
Why should I search for an obituary?
Whether you are looking for someone who died fairly recently, or far in the past, these records contain insights often found nowhere else and can help you connect the dots of a person’s life.
Dates and locations of birth, marriage and death, the names of living and deceased spouses, children, their spouses and children, occupations, hobbies, travels, accomplishments and religious or charitable activities are all often found in an obituary. You might even hit upon a photograph. If you can locate one, it can provide a wealth of information to help you feel more connected to the person you are researching.
Where can I search free obituaries for a person who died recently?
If you’re looking for recent records (in the last decade or two), there are a number of ways to find a person’s obituary, notice of death or funeral services online. The first is to search for their name, location and the word “obituary” in Google. This may sound simple but, often, this is all it takes to turn up the information you’re looking for.
The second way is to search the newspapers that are local to the person’s death or hometown. Many newspapers will allow you to freely search for obituaries in their main article search, while others will have a section for these entries on their website. If you’re lucky the information will be returned free of charge. Otherwise you may end up paying a fee to access it.
Remember to search multiple papers until you find what you need. This may mean the paper from the person’s last know residence, a larger paper near their city of last residence and papers from where their family is from or is currently located. Many retirees, for instance, move to new locations but their family may choose to publish an obituary in their original home town.
You can also check the website of the funeral home that serviced the family as they will sometimes post the records there. Find help with that in our courses.
Legacy.com also offers a free online obituary search and service that can be a great place to find recent entries (obituaries are submitted by family members, funeral homes and others). The site is packed full of ads but access to all records is openly available.
What if I am looking for an old obituary record for my family history research?
Finding older obituaries completely free can be a bit more challenging, but you would be surprised how many are available at no cost online.
Before beginning your search, arm yourself with as much information as possible. Know your ancestor’s full name, date and location of death and names of family members if possible. This will not only help you find the record you’re looking for but help you ensure that the obituary you are reading is for your ancestor and not that of a similarly named person.
Checklist of details to compile before your obituary search begins:
- Full name of your ancestor
- When and where your ancestor was born
- When and where your ancestor died
- Funeral home associated with their death
- Who the individual was married to (at time of death and in the past)
- Names of children from all relationships
- Religious affiliation
- Names and locations of close family members who were living at the time of death
Of course, you’re not likely to have all of the facts, but having as many as you can will make your search for an old obituary more successful.
Google Search: Once you’ve gathered together your information, start by searching in Google, as suggested for more recent deaths. This may help you turn up a resource that contains your ancestor’s record so that you can investigate and see if it is a paid or no cost site. For help searching Google for family history records review this short guide. The tips here can save you time and help you uncover results you may otherwise miss.
FamilySearch: If you cannot locate an obituary via this route, or a find one that is freely accessible, try searching for it in FamilySearch’s United States, GenealogyBank Historical Newspaper Obituaries. This database, which is completely free, offers indexes as well as scanned images from 1815-2011 and is a great jumping off point. While all records are forever free, you will need to sign up (at no cost) to access them.
When conducting a search be sure to try a variety of name variations and locations, be flexible with your dates and try adding keywords (if too many results present themselves) to narrow down your searches.
You will not always turn up the record you are looking for on the first try, so stick with it until you are sure the database doesn’t contain what you are looking for. And remember to search locations your ancestor lived before their death, as well as newspapers associated with their hometown, in addition to their last known home.
Chronicling America: If you can’t find what you need in this database, next check out Chronicling America – a free collection of old U.S. newspapers. As with the database on FamilySearch, be flexible, try many different searches, use exact and nonexact searches and be persistent.
Taking some time to educate yourself about the prominent newspapers of the time and location of your ancestor’s death (and other locations important to them) will help you narrow down your targets. Google searches and Wikipedia are a great way to do this. You may like to read our article on understanding an ancestor’s location for more help with this.
Below is an excerpt from an obituary found in the Barton County Democrat, 1914, with a free search in Chronicling America.
Chronicling America’s newspaper database is huge, but it is provided at no cost and all searches (obituary searches and otherwise), as well as actual images of the papers’ pages, are free. We have an article about how to best make use of this massive resource here.
While the above mentioned resources are the best way to locate obituaries at no cost, many times you will not find what you are looking for. To continue your search try the following additional databases. Some are more thorough that others, but all are provided freely (oftentimes by volunteers) and are absolutely worth a visit.
FamilySearch’s Additional Obituary Databases: The above mentioned record collection is not FamilySearch’s only option. Visit their catalog and find a free database that may contain your ancestor or search all their collections at once here.
USGenWeb Project or Archives: This resource provides some obituary (as well as other death) transcriptions in various locations (a transcription is a typed record of an original image and may, like an index, contain errors). These transcriptions can sometimes also lead you to the location of the original, which you should always try to view when you can.
Your Local Library: Many libraries offer Newsbank, a paid collection of newspapers, for free. Take a look at your library’s website to see if they offer this and other genealogical databases to members. We offer a short guide to better understanding how you can use your local library for genealogical research – read it here.
What if I can’t find my ancestor with a free obituary search?
If you can’t locate the record you’re looking for in a free online database you may need to consider paying, even temporarily, for a subscription to a site that offers them. Many of these sites offer free trials or monthly options that can save money as long as you use them carefully and cancel when you can no longer afford to pay. You may even be able to take advantage of a current subscription if you already have one to one of the large genealogy research sites.
As suggested earlier, make sure you arm yourself with as much information as possible about the ancestor or ancestors you are hoping to find before you begin a subscription.
Paid databases to consider when you can’t find an obituary for free.
Newspapers.com: This is your best bet if you don’t already have a paid subscription to one of the sites below (both sites use records from this collection) and you can gain access to the original obituary itself. The site is fairly easy to use and has a massive amount of scanned newspapers to search – although subscriptions are not cheap.
Following is an excerpt from an obituary in the Lenior Topic from 1897 found on Newspapers.com.
Ancestry.com’s Obituary Index: This is an index of obituaries from Newspapers.com, so if you are already a member, or can take advantage of a free trial, this may be a good place to start your search.
MyHeritage’s Obituaries: MyHeritage has a large collection of obituaries, but they are mostly indexes. Still, if you take advantage of a trial offer, or have a subscription already, this is a great option.
Are obituaries accurate?
If you are lucky enough to locate an obituary for your ancestor always be aware that it may contain errors. These records can offer details found nowhere else but they are only as accurate as the person who wrote them.
In some cases, obituaries were written by a close family member or members and the facts found within them are as true as that family member was aware or willing to share. Sometimes, they were written by a funeral home member or someone who may not have known the person well. In either case, details may have been left out, changed, confused or added.
Use additional research to verify the “facts” in these records before adding them to your family tree (birth, death and marriage records are a good place to look). And, when you do add information to your records, be sure to show the source by linking to the obituary online or uploading a scanned copy to your tree. Help for citing sources can always be found in our online family history courses.
What if I still can’t find the obituary I’m looking for?
If you don’t have luck with the above resources and tips, or if you are looking for an international record, you will want to review the free nationwide, state-based and international guides to free records on our site here.
More help for finding records of death: