Obituaries are more than a memoriam to the deceased and a way to notify the public of the time and place of the funeral. These thumbnail sketches of a person’s life provide solid clues for conducting more research.
This obituary appeared in the Trenton, NJ 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 tiny biography is replete with juicy 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 obviously served in the military. Those records may be available. 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.
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.
By far, two of the more valuable pieces of data are his wife’s and mother’s maiden 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 men who appear as brothers in her obit.
To start your obit quest, figure out which newspaper was published where the deceased lived. No idea what newspapers were circulating during that time period? Try the Library of Congress website at www.loc.gov or the U.S. Newspaper Project at www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html. Reference books such as American Newspapers 1821-1936 – A Union List are also available at most public libraries.
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 managing editor to ask where the archives are kept.
Once you’ve located the archives, scan daily papers for several days, starting with the day the person died. Years ago, flexible deadlines made it easier to get in last minute items, especially in afternoon papers. Go through two or three editions of weekly papers. And 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. Enclosing a couple of bucks and a SASE usually speeds things up, 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.
You might hit it lucky and find the obit you want online. Start with free sites such as www.obitcentral.com, www.arrangeonline.com and www3.sympatico.ca/bkinnon/obit_links.htm that provide links and indexes to obits. And don’t miss sites like www.theoldentimes.com/ or the obituary message board at www.genforum.com.
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