Every day, people browse through the obituary section of the local paper, hardback or digital, just to see if there is somebody they know, or maybe just to learn something about somebody they have never met, and join in their last celebration of life. Obituaries can vary from a short and succinct message about the end of a person's existence to an actual biography, mentioning the most important events in the person's life, their personal and professional achievements and, not least, listing their surviving family members.
Because of the information they include, obituaries are a very valuable source of information for historians, for example. Furthermore, you'd be hard-pressed to complete a family history without reference to obituaries or death notices. In other words, obituaries are a respected resource in different kinds of research, and you don't have to be a professional historian in order to try your hand at piecing together the past, especially today, when online sources of information are available in spades.
In Iowa, there are a variety of places where you can search for obituaries, both offline and online. Before you start a search, it is good to be aware of a few things to avoid disappointment. Firstly, not all deaths get an obituary in the newspaper, so if you are unsure if there is an obituary, try to verify its existence first. Secondly, obituary searches take time -- although there is a chance that your first stop on the road to finding an obituary would be your last, there is a greater chance that you will need to use more than one source, especially if you are looking for an older entry into the public record. Thirdly, there is professional help that you can use, generally in the way of library staff and members of genealogical societies.
Sources where you can find obituaries, death notices, and death records can be divided into three main groups: online databases, public libraries and historical societies, and state health authorities.
Online databases can be a useful source of information, though only a few of them are extensive enough. However, it is these bigger ones that are indexed at the top of search engine results, so you'll likely run across a few of them naturally in the course of your search. While some of these websites use the US Social Security Death Index and their databases go back as far as the beginning of the 20th century, the obituary you are looking for may have been issued even earlier than that. But in case it is more recent, these databases are a good first choice in an obituary search. Some of them will yield the full information, including date of publication, name of the newspaper, and the full text of the obituary. Others require subscription for this and will only display name of newspaper and date of publication. It is always wise to use more than one such database in any search rather than give up if the name you need does not pop up with the first attempt.
If, however, these websites fail to yield results, the next step is to go to the library or contact a historical society. Nearly all libraries keep records of newspapers, local and national. It is the local ones that are the most valuable since they are often times more likely to publish obituaries of local former residents. Of course, this is only exceptionally helpful if you know the town or city where your ancestor passed away (and you can get there), and you know there was an obituary written. Start looking at issues of the local paper from the date of death until about a month later. Librarians who conduct obituary searches on a daily basis warn that sometimes these announcements are not published until much later. What's more, some deaths get reported in news articles, in cases such as an epidemic outbreak or a big car crash. You can find a full list of libraries in Iowa on this website and take your pick based on the information you already have about the decedent.
Another source of obituary information is the Iowa Genealogical Society. The Society has collections including birth and death records, and of obituaries taken from newspapers that were in circulation across the state. The collection, which also features cemetery records and records of funeral homes, covers the period from 1880 to about 1930. The only possible inconvenience is that the collection is not digitalized and is only available in print or microfilm on-site.
The State Historical Society of Iowa is another information repository that you can use in an obituary search. Its extensive and diverse collections include obituaries from Iowa newspapers, genealogical resources such as death indexes in various counties, and church records featuring death announcements. The Society also keeps historical books of obituaries.
But what if no newspaper carried an obituary for the death of the person you are interested in? Then the only logical step would be to contact the state authorities in charge of keeping vital records and request a copy of the person's death certificate.
The Bureau of Vital Statistics at the Iowa Department of Public Health is the custodian of all records regarding births, deaths, and marriages since 1880. Older records are public and can be requested by anyone, but for more recent ones you would need to supply proof of eligibility, such as direct family relation. Alternatively, you can find a death certificate at the recorder's office in the county where the death occurred, bearing in mind that county recorder offices do not keep any vital records from the period 1921 and 1941.
Any research requires time and obituary research is no exception. Still, such searches are made much easier than ever before with all the digital capabilities available out there. Some library collections are available online and are freely accessible, for example. Copies of death records can be requested online, too. In other words, there are many things previously impossible that are now saving a lot of time for researchers. What's more, some libraries offer obituary search services in exchange for a fee, so if you're ever stuck, you can always lean on local experts to give you the final push you need!