You hear it a lot in pirate movies. It's one of a buccaneer's favorite lines: "Dead men tell no tales!" Generally it is spoken just as the mustachioed scourge of the seas is about to test the theory by thrusting a sword into some vital spot on his hapless victim's anatomy.
Well, Heather Walgren begs to differ. She told a group attending a session at the recent RootsTech family history and technology conference that dead men tell great stories. Obituaries, in most cases the "last word" in an individual's life, are chock full of the kind of rich detail that makes family historians drool. The usual obit includes the deceased person's birth and death dates, parents, spouse(s), children, siblings, places of residence, education and work experience, religious and civic affiliations, funeral arrangements, etc., etc., etc. A pirate should be so lucky to find such a treasure trove!
The extensive obituaries printed in newspapers today, complete with a photo (or more) are a tradition that started in the 20th century, she said. In today's newspaper world, where obituaries are most often paid advertisements, people have more leeway to say what they want in their final notice.
I suspect that some might include information that isn't true. And I feel for the man whose obituary (no doubt submitted by his wife) said he was a miserable, nasty man when he was alive and she expected to find him the same on the other side.
One of the great things about obituaries, as Walgren pointed out, is that they are equal-opportunity notices for the dead. Even people who have lived and died in obscurity, quietly going about their business without drawing any attention, find their place in the obituary columns. Families that "are not well-documented or that are dysfunctional" have their moment in print, she said, and that's a boon for family researchers.
Walgren is the newspaper program manager for the records and partners division at FamilySearch and knows whereof she speaks. The division has been indexing obituaries at a great rate, digitizing them and making them available to family history researchers who use the FamilySearch resources to ferret out information about kin.
Originally, a goal was set to index and publish 46 million obits, she said. In three years, 183,832 volunteers indexed 13.2 million obits containing 94.4 million names. (And as an aside, Walgren said there's always room for more volunteers, should you feel inclined.)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the largest repository of genealogical data in the world, with 1,344 indexed collections, including 30 dedicated to obituaries. Those now available are primarily from the United States and Australia.
Looking at the sources listed by users, the family history experts can calculate that the obituary collections are the eighth most used resource for the thousands of genealogists who plumb the church collections for family information, right behind U.S. Censuses. They can see what information from the obituary collections is being added to family trees on FamilySearch.
Beyond the obituary columns, newspapers may have all kinds of information that add to a genealogist's store. The brief death lists, funeral and burial notices can lead to other sources for research, Walgren noted.
And occasionally, the hard news sections of the newspaper will add to the information about a family member. For instance, Salt Lake newspapers of the time noted that her great-great-grandfather Hans Peter Walgren, who was born in Denmark, was killed at age 89 when he was hit by a car in Salt Lake City. There were those in the family who knew the circumstances, but younger generations were growing up not knowing. The newspaper article allowed the family to share in the general knowledge about Hans.
Walgren recounted the story of another man who left home, ostensibly to look for work, and never came back. Years later, a newspaper in Washington state published a notice that the man, Walgren's third great-grandfather, had died and that his estate had not been claimed. Through the notice, the family was finally able to lay to rest the mystery of his disappearance for the family.
I have to admit to a personal fondness for obituaries. In the newspaper hierarchy, that's where one begins (or did, before obituaries became a money-maker for the newspapers and moved from the newsroom to the advertising department). Back in the early 1950s, writing obituaries was great training for a drop-in high school graduate with a real skinny resume who was hired by the Deseret News on a fluke.
The assignment also just about got me fired when I made the most terrible mistake of my career. I mixed up the funeral information for a very prominent Salt Lake City woman and the services for two young men of no particular note who were killed in a car accident. The funeral directors were not happy when many of the state's notables showed up at the funeral for two young men with whom they were not acquainted. I am grateful for a city editor who did not see fit to give me notice, as was suggested. I learned to be very careful.
But if today someone resurrects one of the hundreds of obits I wrote back then and finds information that fills a gap in his or her genealogical data, I will be happy that my road to reporting took me through the stony paths of obituary writing.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.