Obituaries serve to inform a community of someone's passing, let people who knew them celebrate their life and share condolences. Although those may be their primary purposes, they certainly aren't the only ones! Obituaries and death notices are also a historical resource that can be invaluable for genealogists and biographers. In recent years, self-done family trees are also gaining popularity. With all the online resources available today for anyone interested in their own family history, making a family tree or writing up a history of your ancestors has never been easier.
That said, however, it should be noted that obituary searches do take time, especially if you are looking for information about more distant ancestors. Missouri has ample resources in this respect, including death indexes, lists of death certificates complete with images, newspaper archives available online, and cemetery records. Many of these resources are county-specific, which actually improves your chances of finding the obituary you need, or, if there is no obituary, a death record that contains relevant information.
Generally, if you know the name of the person you are researching but are not too sure about the date of death or whether there was an obituary published in a local newspaper, you can try one of the nationwide digital databases of obituaries and death notices. There is a choice of these and for the most part they are free. However, some will only give you basic information such as name of newspaper and date of publication unless you are a paid subscriber. However, even the most comprehensive electronic database does not hold every single obituary ever published in the state or the country. If you fail to find the one you need there, you will have to use other sources of information.
Thanks to a growing interest in genealogy and history, authorities and private organizations alike have put a lot of effort into making various resources freely available online. Local historical and genealogical societies, the state archives, county authorities, all these parties are doing their best to make historical research easier.
The Missouri State Archives, for example, is hosting a project called Missouri Digital Heritage, which involves a database of birth and death certificates dating back to 1909 and earlier. So far the database has amassed 185,000 records, from 87 Missouri counties. These records can be just as valuable as obituaries. They include the name and sex of the decedent, their age, marital status and occupation, nationality, place of birth, place, date and cause of death, and the date and place they were buried. The death certificates also include the addresses of the funeral home and the physician who wrote the certificate. The database is searchable and the authors recommend that you enter just a last name in order to get more results, in case you are unsure about the full name of the person.
Another important database in this project is the Coroner's Inquest Database, which includes entries for a number of counties and the city of St. Louis. The database is, again, searchable online, and includes the same information as death certificates, as well as reference details for the microfilm reel on which the original record is stored.
Public libraries are another essential source of information. Almost all the libraries in Missouri have newspaper records. Sometimes, the smaller the library, the better source of obituary information it is, as smaller, local newspapers as a rule publish more obituaries than national titles, so there is a greater chance that there is an obituary to find. Besides, smaller libraries generally focus on local history and resources, which makes them especially helpful.
Albany's Carnegie Public Library, for instance, has microfilm records of 11 historical newspaper titles from the area. Although not comprehensive, the records are quite substantial, some of them dating back to the mid-19th century. The library also has a very extensive list of cemetery inscriptions. These, although no match for obituaries, can also sometimes give you some pointers about the life of the person you are researching.
The Carthage Public Library, for its part, has newspaper runs from 1866 to 2005 in its genealogy resource section, as well as a list of obituaries from 1980 to date. It also keeps gravestone inscription files, cemetery records, funeral home records, and some probate records. Although these resources are not available online, the library has provided a list of relevant websites such as the Social Security Death Index, and the National Archives and Records Administration.
Another county library, in Howard county, partners with the local genealogical society to provide genealogy help sessions, alongside on-site resources such as obituary books and various relevant records. The library also offers contact details for the local authorities responsible for maintaining the historical and contemporary vital records in the county. The county clerk's office, for example, keeps birth and death records for the period 1882 to 1892.
Some counties have compiled digital death record indexes for the area, with information contributed by volunteers. These records can be quite extensive: the database for Butler county, for instance, spans more than a century. The information includes name, dates of birth and death, and place of burial. Christian county, for its part, keeps a death record collection from a local funeral home. Funeral home records can be very useful especially when there is no newspaper obituary.
Genealogical societies are another good source of information. The Iron County Genealogical Society, for instance, keeps extensive historical collections including church records, a list of county cemeteries, death records, an index of wills from the county probate court, will transcriptions, and obituary records. The death index is searchable and the collection of obituaries is arranged in alphabetical order but this is a work in progress and the database is not too extensive yet.
With so many sources to choose from - or, you know, you could just use them all in an obituary search, the only thing that you need to arm yourself with is some patience, as the search may take quite some time if you don't start out with all the necessary information.