Obituary searches are part of the job description of a number of professionals, but they are also what any genealogy enthusiast will have to become familiar with at some point in their research. Obituaries contain a lot of important biographical information and sometimes they include details about as many as three generations, which is what makes them such a valuable information source. Knowing the main steps to follow in this endeavor is sure to increase the chances of success and save time and effort. The first thing to do is to gather as much information about the person you are researching as possible. While in some cases this may be an easy job, in others, when you are searching for an older obituary, gathering all the necessary information may turn out to be quite challenging.
In order to start an obituary search, the minimum information you need is the last name of the person you are researching, plus their place of residence, in order to be able to filter through the results that an online obituary database would yield when you do a name-based search. When you use one of these databases -- or more than one -- bear in mind that no result is guaranteed. For one thing, although the biggest obituary websites are very extensive, they are not comprehensive. For another, you have to be absolutely certain that there is an obituary -- this is another thing that you need to establish, if possible, in advance.
The place of residence of the person is very important when looking for their obituary, as chances are it was published by the local newspaper. If the person died in a place different from their place of residence, then it is also possible that the obituary was reported there. Another thing to bear in mind with regard to newspaper reports of deaths is that some deaths are covered in news stories and not in obituaries. If you have the name and the relevant dates, and you have found the name of the newspaper that published the obituary, your next step could be to contact it directly, requesting a copy of the obituary. You might want to try their digital archives first, but these as a rule cover only recent years, and many newspapers don't have a digital archive at all. So, one way to get the report is by writing to the newspaper. But what happens if you cannot identify a date of publication and have no idea which paper published the obituary?
Public libraries are your strongest ally in obituary searches. They keep often extensive newspaper records and can even perform the search for you. Many also offer online search resources, which you can use to locate the document you need. One example of this is the Missoula Public Library, which has a search tool for locating vital records such as birth and death announcements. The database includes information from hundreds of Montana publications, and you can search by keyword.
The library of Montana State University also provides online access to its newspaper collection and a search tool specifically for obituaries. The database is compiled from issues of two regional newspapers, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and the Great Falls Tribune, and it includes issues from 1987 up to 2007 for the first, and 2006 for the second. This is not a very long time but it could still be useful if you believe the obituary was published in this period and area.
The Havre-Hill County Library has a genealogy section of resources, including a digital list of historical obituaries spanning almost a century, published in two local titles, the Havre Daily News and the Havre Hill Times. The library also has an alphabetical index of obituaries carried in the local press. Another genealogical resource at HHCL is a cemetery index for Hill county. Although the information in the index does not include many details, it does include full names and dates of death.
The Billings Public Library, yet another local resource, keeps an index of vital statistics published in the local press in the period from 1882 to 1902. The database includes more than 13,000 names. The library also has Billings Gazette indexes for the period 1930 to 1939, listed in alphabetical order. In addition to these, the library, as most, features online subscription services such as Heritage Quest, and contact details for genealogical societies and other historical resources.
Another major source of information about obituaries is genealogical societies. The Montana State Genealogical Society has an extensive death record database dating back to 1882. As the Society explains on the website of the database, for deaths occurring before that year, cemetery records, newspapers, and personal journals are the best source of information, since events like these were not recorded either locally or centrally.
Other genealogical societies in the state also boast ample resources, such as obituary indexes, vital records collections, coroner's reports, and cemetery records. County authorities are also a possible source of such historical information -- these are custodians of historical vital records that are as a rule unavailable anywhere else.
Vital records, which include death certificates, are the best alternative to obituaries information-wise. For the period from 1907 to date, the repository for these records is the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Bear in mind, though, that unless you are a direct family member of the decedent, you can only request certificates issued 30 years or more. At the county level, the clerk of district court is the office you need for older records. These go back to the 1880s, although their number is not very great.
In any obituary or death record search you should keep in mind that sometimes local resources are much better than central ones. Local historical societies and libraries are focused on a smaller area of historical interest and are likely to keep collections featuring information sources unavailable anywhere else.