Obituaries documents can be a valuable tool for historical studies, as well as for investigative journalism. Also, obituaries are essential in most any type of genealogical research. They commonly include not just the personal details of an individual, the deceased, but also information about their family, and background data such as country of origin, for instance, religious affiliations, professional achievements, and social activities the deceased had taken part in. Obituaries, as a rule, appear in newspapers, so your best bet when starting a search is to browse newspaper records. With the digitalization of every aspect of life today, this has become easier than ever, as many local, regional, and national newspapers maintain an electronic database of back issues.
In Alabama, there is an extensive choice of sources that will supply the information you need. Obituaries have been published in newspapers in the state since the early 19th century, and there are even books of obituaries: some of them contain collections of death notices published between the early 1800s and 1879. Apart from books, public libraries, the state archives and individual newspapers are the most reliable sources of death notices.
At this website you can find a detailed list of public libraries in Alabama. The list includes address and contact information, plus a website address if the library has one. Though not all do, if there is a public library in your area, you could do worse than going through their newspaper records when doing an obituary search.
As one typical example of the resources available at state libraries, the Birmingham public library provides a number of records that are publicly available, including online. These include a historic newspaper collection, spanning the period between 1836 and 1922. Some 664 historical newspapers are available online, along with another 140,000 newspapers that are listed in the U.S. Newspaper Directory.
Another interesting resource at the Birmingham public library is a collection of coal mine deaths in Alabama in the period 1898 to 1938. The collection includes 2,188 records based on annual reports by Alabama mine inspectors. Though these are not technically obituaries or official death records, they could still be seen as a valuable genealogy resource for some researchers.
Yet another relevant collection at this library is the Alabama Episcopal Church Registers. The registers include records of a number of events, including baptisms, marriages, and burials. There are records of 14,000 people in the collection, and they span a period of more than a century: from the 1830s to the 1970s.
An even more extensive resource is BPL's ancestry library edition, which includes information on family names, family histories, military records, and historical vital records - birth and death certificate, and marriage and divorce records.
Department of Health
Speaking of vital records, death certificates become public after a certain time has elapsed from the date of issuance, often 50 years or more, depending on the individual state. In Alabama, however, the statute of limitations is much shorter: death certificates become public records 25 years after being issued. Such public death records can be accessed at the Alabama Department of Public Health, as long as they were not issued before 1908. Unless you are looking for death certificates of recently deceased to whom you have no blood or legal relation, you can request a copy using a standard application form provided on the DoH website. You will need to provide as much detail about the person as possible in order to help ensure a successful search. Bear in mind that even if the vital record custodians fail to find a death certificate matching your request, you would still have to pay for the search efforts performed.
The Department of Archives and History, however, has a greater abundance of obituary resources, since it keeps extensive newspaper collections, one on microfilm, and another of original issues of the papers. Church registers are also available at the Archives, for as many as seven denominations, including, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, Church of Christ, Methodist, Jewish and Presbyterian.
If you don't have a public library near you or don't find what you are looking for on the Archives website, you can try using the freely available online resources offered for each state. At the various state websites you can search obituaries dating back quite awhile. You can also usually search for more contemporary obituaries. You can search for various other websites that include information from newspapers.
Of course, newspapers themselves also keep a database of their past issues, which makes them a good source of obituary information. Many, if not most, newspapers now keep digital records, so search is made easier than ever. While some only display the most recent death notices, others provide search options for older obituaries.