For the average person, an obituary might be an obscure item in the daily paper rarely engaged with, but for others, their impact is much more significant. They are a valuable resource for biographers, genealogists, and historians, but they are also used by other professionals as well. Obituaries are also one of the best tools any enthusiast can use to make a family tree or compile a family history. However, locating an obituary can be time-consuming -- the older it is, the more time you would have to spend searching for it.
There are several reasons for this. One is that the newspaper that the obituary appeared in may be well out of circulation, so you might not be able to rely on the paper's own archives. Another reason is that even if the newspaper still exists, it will almost certainly not have a digital archive of all its back issues. In these cases, you can directly contact the paper and ask them to perform an obituary search for you, granted that you have all the relevant details such as full name of the decedent and the exact or at least approximate date when you believe the obituary was published. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of Massachusetts newspapers.
Lack of information is really the major challenge in an obituary search. If you are looking for a recent one and you are close to the family of the deceased, this challenge will be insignificant, but if you are collecting information about a distant ancestor, there may not be enough family members alive to remember all the relevant details. This is where you will have to embark on a full-scale search, using both online and offline resources.
The minimum information threshold you need is the person's last name and at least a vague idea about where they lived and/or died. There are a number of digital databases of obituaries where you can search by last name only but the results that will be returned will take time to analyze until you locate the one that is the closest to what you already know about the person. Even if the database you are using does not give you the actual text of the obituary -- some don't -- it will supply you with enough information to locate it at a public library, since these are among the major repositories for newspaper collections.
One potentially disheartening fact about electronic obituary databases is that they tend to include only relatively recent death announcements. If you need an obituary from the late 19th century, for instance, you are unlikely to find it in such a database. A further problem is that not all deaths, not even most, get an obituary, which means that you will need other channels to locate the death record for an ancestor or another person of interest.
The first place to look for death records would be the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records for the period from 1921 to the present day. You can access the Registry through the government website for the state, Mass.gov. The Registry issues only certified copies and for more recent certificates you will have to provide proof of eligibility such as a direct blood relation to the decedent named on the record. If you cannot provide such proof but you are still a relative, you can ask the decedent's surviving family members to make a request on your behalf.
For death records prior to 1921 you need the Massachusetts State Archives. Births and death in Massachusetts have been registered since 1635, and statewide collection of these records began in 1841. The State Archives keeps records for the period 1841 to 1920, indexes of which are available online. The information in these records typically includes name, dates of birth and death, place of residence, occupation, and names of parents. For deaths that occurred from 1903 to 1920 the records also include place of burial.
Death records dating before 1841 can be found at the county where the death occurred. Though these may not be complete, town or city authorities are the only custodians of older vital records in Massachusetts. You can search them by place on the State Archives site.
Alternative sources of historical information about deaths can also be found online. These include county genealogical collections, cemetery records, gravestone collections, and other local archives. As a whole, county authorities, libraries, and historical societies are great sources of information due to their in-depth focus on the local history, and could provide you with information that is not available anywhere else.
Perhaps the best source of obituary information, however, is public libraries. Most of them have newspaper collections that include both existing and historical newspapers, and that is only one of the resources they provide. Many libraries have specific genealogy sections. The Boston Public Library, for instance, has an online search tool for obituaries.
The libraries at Boston University, for their part, have extensive digital collections of newspapers, historical and existing, which you can browse if you are a subscriber. Yet another local library, in Fall River, has indexed half a century of obituaries carried by the local Fall River Herald News. The project is ongoing and further obituaries will be included in the list. Some libraries offer to do an obituary search for you but you will need to supply all the details around the event in order to make the search successful.
You can also use the resources available in genealogical and historical societies. The New England Historical and Genealogical Society is the oldest one in the States, and has a library of more than 200,000 volumes. The society has a lot of collections, which you can search through from the comfort of your own home. Types of records in the database include not just death certificates, but also cemetery records, church records, census data, and wills and probate records. The search tool also includes the newspaper collection of the NEHGS. The source base that the society uses is very impressive, and there is a good chance for you to find the obituary or death record that you were looking for here.