Obituary searches are a time-consuming business, but luckily there are a wide range of resources available online to make your life just a bit easier. To begin with, what exactly are obituaries and what are they useful for? Obituaries and death notices basically tell of someone's death, with the death notice providing just the basics such as name, place of residence, and date of death. Obituaries contain more details, including surviving family members, and life achievements. Obituaries are a cornerstone of genealogical research, and they can also be helpful sources of information for journalists and law enforcement officers, as well as private investigators.
Given the size of California, it is only natural to be worried that an obituary search will take much longer than in a smaller state. However, the principles to be applied to such a research are valid regardless of the size of the state, and will help you reduce the time spent searching databases, digital or print.
Step number one, when starting an obituary search, is to get as many details about the person whose obituary you need as possible. Besides the name, the most important details to get are the place of residence and the place and date of death. This will help you narrow down the newspapers likely to have published an obituary or a notice.
Step number two is to check with all the free online obituary repositories that you can find through the search engines.
Step number three, if you don't find the obituary you are looking for in one of these online databases, is to identify the newspaper that could have published the obituary. This could be difficult, especially if the person lived in a bigger city with lots of dailies and weeklies.
Step number four, which could actually replace steps two and three, is to use the services of public libraries in California. Not only are they some of the major repositories of newspaper collections going back decades, but they have trained staff who know how to perform all sorts of searches. Here are some California libraries and what they offer in the way of obituary search resources.
Los Angeles Public Library
To start with, bear in mind that this library does not perform obituary searches, but you can use the paid services of a genealogist, choosing them from a directory that the library will provide. Aside from this, it is important to be aware that Los Angeles newspapers mostly carry celebrity obituaries, and it is smaller community newspapers, of which there are scores in the 88 cities in Los Angeles county, that publish more obituaries. Death notices may appear more frequently in big city papers but you should note that there is no centralized index for either type of death announcement, so you will need to perform full-text search to find the information you need.
The library has extensive online resources that will aid an obituary search. For instance, it has the digitalized issues of the Los Angeles Times from 1881 to 1986, and these are available at all branches of the library. The information contained in these digital versions is not full text but it includes both obituaries and death notices. Issues from 1985 onwards are available in full text in the library's branches. Among the other newspapers with digital versions at the LAPL are the Van Nuys News, under several titles, from 1911 to 1977, and the Daily News of Los Angeles from 1995 to the present day. If you have a library card from the LAPL you can search these databases from the comfort of your own home.
Fresno County Public Library
On site you can search a death index for the whole state for the period 1905-1995 available on microfilm. Electronically, you can follow links that will take you to another death index, for the period 1940-1997, at RootsWeb.com, and the Social Security Death Index, which lists deaths from 1962 to the present day. Another resource the Fresno library offers is an archive of the Fresno Bee from 1986 onwards. For this, however, you will need to have a library card.
Edmonton Public Library
The EPL has an extensive database of obituaries on microfilm, spanning the period of 1903 to the present day. These records are available on site at the Stanley A. Milner Library. You can also use the online search tool the library provides, based on last name and period within which the death occurred. Note that the online database only includes obituaries from the period 1950 to 1982. The library also has an archive of obituaries that were published in the Edmonton Journal
San Joaquin County Public Library
Website Familysearch.org has a search tool for a range of public libraries, and this is one of them. You can search by either first or last name, or both, and within a certain year range. The search will yield an index card number or a newspaper clipping. The period that the San Joaquin County Public Library Obituary Index covers spans 1850 through 1991.
Apart from public libraries, there are also other online resources that you can use to find an obituary. One of these is a list of the obituary sections from 68 California newspapers. Powered by Legacy.com, the list will yield both the latest obituaries published in a certain newspaper, and search tools to browse the archive of the paper.
Another repository for obituaries and death notices is the California Digital Newspaper Collection. This project of the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research at the University of California, Riverside features 71,625 newspaper issues, with a total of 595,046 pages and 6,837, 378 articles, from the period 1846 to 1922. As some deaths do not get reported in obituaries but in news pieces, such a resource could prove very useful if you are searching death announcements from that period.
The Southern California Family Research Library is another source of information. While the project's website does not provide the obituaries themselves, it does contain a list of both online and offline obituary index repositories, such as newspapers, libraries, genealogical and historical societies, and others. It's an ongoing project that has so far collected information on about a fifth of the more than 600 obituary repositories in the region.