Thursday, January 2, 2014

Trusting Obituaries

Today I have a guest blogger:  my friend Carol Townsend.  Her mother recently passed away, and after writing her mother's obituary, she was struck by the nature of obituaries and how they fit into genealogy research.


Frances Lathrop Gundrum
One of the cornerstones of genealogical research is the newspaper obituary.  There is so much information packed into a small space, and they often contain names of relatives that appear nowhere else in other documentation—aunts, uncles, cousins—who are listed in the "survived by" or "preceded in death by" sections.  Obituaries can be one of the best ways to break through a brick wall in your research and give you a new avenue of research.

One caveat:  You can't always trust them.

Having just written my mother's obituary, I know how easy it is to get facts wrong or include information that we who wrote it understand, but which might seem misleading.  But once an obituary goes into print, many people take it as gospel truth.

Case in point:  My brother married a woman with three very young children but never legally adopted them.  They all call my brother "Dad" (their biological father is referred to by his first name, if at all), and my parents were Grandpa and Grandma.  They are listed, rightfully so, as my mother's grandchildren.  Each of those grandchildren has the name of a significant other included:  Marie (Kurt) Edwards, Katie (Bob Deelstra) Kortlever, and Jared (Katrina Eisma) Kortlever.  Looking at those names, it seems obvious that Kurt and Marie are married, but you don't know if Bob and Katie are married and if Katie just kept her maiden name.  The same can be said for Jared and Katrina.  More research is required.

(For the curious:  Kurt and Marie are married and have each brought children into the marriage; Bob and Katie are engaged, have one child together, and share custody of an older daughter with Bob's ex-wife; and Jared and Katrina are living together with no current plans to make anything official.)

Another example:  I have a cousin who is rather a vagabond and a drifter.  All we could really say in the obituary was that he was somewhere in Hawaii.  We're not sure which island he's on, or if he's still there.  We're pretty sure it's accurate, but we don't actually know.  That's what it says in the obituary.  It may or may not be true, but it's in print.

One thing to remember when doing research is that most often, at least in this day and age, obituaries are written by funeral directors from information given to them by grieving families.  The families do their best, I'm sure, to give accurate information.  But it is a time of stress, and one does not always think clearly at such times.  I was fortunate that I had a few days to fact-check; I had originally gotten a couple of dates wrong, but I was able to find the information in my home files and correct the obit before it went to print.

Now that I've written an obituary myself, I will look at them with a more careful eye as I do any research.  Obituaries can be wonderful goldmines of new facts, but you can't be sure that everything in them is accurate.  Take the information down, certainly, but verify each fact with at least one other documentary source.  That's good research practice in any case.

Carol is a former teacher and ASL interpreter who is transitioning to becoming a professional writer.  Her mother's memorial page is hosted by the Miller Funeral Home.

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