Obituaries and death notices are the two primary ways in which deaths are announced in the press. That said, not all deaths get a newspaper obituary, even in small local papers. However, for those that do, the obituary is an important resource for genealogists, historians, investigative journalists, and law enforcement officers. Obituary searches can be a lengthy undertaking, especially if you have very limited information about the decedent. Still, there are a lot of sources of information you can use to piece together a picture of a person's life that would help you find their obituary. This article will pertain specifically to Maryland.
As said above, not all deaths are reported in an obituary, so you might have to look elsewhere for a document confirming a person's death. In Maryland, the best stop is the Division of Vital Records at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for more recent records, or the State Archives for death records dating back to the late 17th century. These official government websites can all be reached through Maryland.gov.
For recent death certificates you will have to provide identification and proof of your direct family relation to the decedent. For older ones you don't need such proof as they are considered public records, but bear in mind that even the State Archives does not have vital records for the period 1800 to 1864. If you need a document confirming a death during that period, your best bet would be the church records in the county where the death occurred or, alternatively, the county authorities, more specifically the city clerk. County authorities keep a lot of local public records, and could be a useful ally in an obituary search.
The State Archives keeps a death records index for all the Maryland counties, except Baltimore City, for the period 1898 to 1944, and for Baltimore City for 1875 to 1972. It also keeps death records for the period 1898-1998 for the counties, and for 1875-1998 for Baltimore City. At Vitalrec, you can search four databases, two statewide and two for Baltimore. The search will yield images of death certificates taken from original index cards. You can then order a copy of the record in exchange for a small fee.
If you know there is an obituary, there are a number of sources you can use to get a copy of it. Unfortunately, while for some states the archives are quite extensive both in number of newspaper titles and in period covered, for Maryland there are only two newspapers, the Capital and the Baltimore Sun, with archives back to 1991 and 1990, respectively. If the obituary you are looking for was published in the last 24 years in one of these newspapers, there is a very good chance you will find it in this database.
Another article-search tool is available at Google News. Here, you can search newspaper content based on one or more keywords, for a specific date or over a specified time period. You can also search all the Google news archives without specifying a timeframe. This is true for other online databases too, if you don't know for certain the date of death or the date of publication of the obituary.
All of the specialized obituary databases online have a name-based search option, and they also have advanced search options that require more details. On the one hand, if you do have these details, such as place of death and date, it is a good idea to use them. On the other, if you have only a vague idea about the date, it's better to cast a wider net and choose a time period instead. Depending on the website, such a search will give you information such as date and place of death, name of newspaper that carried the obituary, and date of publication. Some databases contain the full texts of the obituaries or a photocopy of the original entry, which you can view for free or for a subscription fee.
In case you are looking for a very recent obituary, you have a very good chance to find it directly on the website of the newspaper. Most newspapers today keep a small archive, and some even keep archives going back a few years, though these do not necessarily include the obits section. If you don't find the obituary on the website, you can contact the newspaper. Needless to say, you have to be sure that it was this particular newspaper that carried the obituary. Give them all the details you have about the person and the obituary, and they should have no problem finding it for you.
But what happens if the obituary you are looking for was published in a newspaper that no longer exists? Your best bet in this case is the local library. Before you go to the library, try out WorldCat. It is a gigantic library catalog that gives you free access to a lot of library collections from all states, so you can try searching for the newspaper issue you need here. If you have no luck finding the obituary, move on to a physical library.
The Baltimore County Public Library, for one, has a wide array of genealogical resources including obituary collections from local newspapers, both current and historical, and some of these are in digital form. However, you need to have a library card in order to be able to use these resources from home. On its website, the library has provided a long list of other obituary search resources. It also has contact details of genealogical and historical societies, which keep their own collections of documents and other records. These could also be useful in case other searches don't yield any results.
Alternative sources of information about deaths include cemetery records, some of which you can find online, probate records and indexes, and church records. These could be particularly useful in searches for older death records. However you look at it, obituary search takes time and effort but the end result would be gratifying enough to compensate for the hard work.