Thursday, May 5, 2016

OBITUARIES: Saving the best till last

The Irish writer Brendan Behan famously declared that "there's no bad publicity except an obituary."  While the sentiment behind Behan's observation is certainly easy to understand, I think most genealogists would take exception to his negative view of obituaries.  Unless your family tree is populated by heroes, saints, royalty, scoundrels, or politicians (those last two categories are not mutually exclusive!), an obituary notice is probably the single richest source of information you'll be able to obtain for the vast majority of relatives who've lived in the past century or so.  Indeed, an obituary is often the only source for details about a person's life that would otherwise vanish entirely from memory.  Quite frequently the obituary is the sole surviving source of information about a family member not created as part of a state-run record keeping function. 

For example, without an obituary I would never have known the details surrounding my third great grandmother's death in 1896 at the age of 77.  Martha Jane Chapin Stickle died from blood poisoning contracted through the an infection that resulted from a housecleaning accident involving a table fork.
Obituaries are an especially good source for connecting people to the wider communities in which they lived, prayed, and worked. My great grandfather Wesley Riley (1881-1959) was the youngest son in a family that included 14 children, all of whom lived to adulthood.  By reading the obituaries of all of his siblings, who died between 1907 and 1969, I came to appreciate the important role that the Grange played in their lives, and in the lives of farm families throughout the rural North in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sometimes the information in obituaries is served up almost on a silver platter; other times it comes in the form of tantalizing clues, telling the careful reader as much through what is left out as through what is actually said:  Was the son whose name was omitted from the list of survivors a 'black sheep' who had been disowned by his parents? Or was the name omitted merely because the daughter-in-law who reported the information was upset and forgetful in the rush of events surrounding grandma's death?  And what about the daughter who is listed in her father's obituary under her maiden name several years after her marriage?  Was she divorced? Or was obituary a not-so-subtle statement that her parents never approved of their scoundrel son-in-law? And what about that step-son who seemingly materializes out of nowhere?  These are the kind of questions that arise from a careful and critical reading of obituaries.

Obituaries are by no means a "perfect source" (what is?).  They are inevitably subject to biases (both positive and otherwise); they are also shaped by the imperfect memories of survivors as well by as the mistakes and sloppiness of undertakers and harried newspaper printers.  But by carefully weighing the stories they tell, by weighing evidence and developing informed opinions about contradictory claims, we learn a great deal about our ancestors' lives and about the world they lived in.  Evaluating and interpreting imperfect sources of information is a huge part of what we DO as genealogists, and as historians.  That's what makes our work so fun.

So, I'm an obituary fanatic.  These days I am reveling in the torrent of newspaper content that's become available online. Since most of my paternal lines have deep roots in Ohio, I'm also fortunate to have ready access to the extensive collection of Ohio newspapers at the Ohio Historical Society. And nothing whets my appetite for a road trip more than the discovery that a local library in some town relevant to my work has a newspaper collection that hasn't yet been digitized.

I'll wrap up here for this time.  I've been told to keep my blog posts brief, and that's a challenge for me.  But I have more -- lots more -- to say and to share about obituaries and the contributions they can make to recreating the lost worlds of our ancestors.

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