As one of the original 13 colonies, Virginia's history spans much more of American history than the majority of our 50 states. This means that records of births, deaths, property sales, marriages, legislature and more may reach much farther back than a lot of other locations in the country. The wealth of information is invaluable and it provides a comprehensive look at the institutional makeup of Virginia since before the American Revolution. There are property records that exist for the former colony that date back to when it was under British control.
The access to information and the established archive is incredible, and it extends to the obituaries that were often published to announce a death to the local community. Obituary records from the state go all the way back to the 18th century, and you may even be able to find some from before America was even a twinkle in the founding fathers' eyes.
Before you begin your search for the obituary, you will need to figure out what information you have and what information you still need. The requirements for locating an obituary differ from state to state and county to county, but in Virginia, there are pieces of information that will definitely make it easier to get what you need.
With any search for records that regards an individual, you need to know the full name of the person in question. Middle names are very important in searches like this. Additionally, Virginia's archives for non-state-related information vary from county to county. In Virginia, the county where the obituary was published matters quite a bit because the filing systems are not statewide. They are usually separated by county and are sometimes even more specific than that.
Beyond name and location, an idea of when the person died is very important. You may not need to get as specific as the exact date, but many places require you to, at very least, know the year that the person passed away. There are some places that allow you to search databases only by name, and in those cases, you would only need an idea of the year or decade to be able to discern between obituaries of people with similar names. In other instances, however, when a human being is doing the searching, an accurate date is important because it will limit the amount of legwork that has to be done to locate the information.
If taking the time to track down an obituary that you need or want is not in the cards, there are many services that will do the work for you and provide a photocopy for a fee. That being said, it isn't necessary to pay much money before knowing where the information you need is located or if it is accessible at all.
If you have information about the city where the person passed away or the newspaper where the obituary was published, the search becomes that much easier from the beginning. It could be as simple as hopping on to the website for the publication and searching their possibly digitized archives. If that doesn't work out in your favor, you could make a phone call to the archives office for the publication and see what they require in order to request or acquire photocopies.
If you aren't able to get anywhere with the actual publication or the newspaper is no longer in print, the next step is often the library. In some cases, libraries have digitized archives of the information you're looking for. Other times, the information is sitting on a dusty page somewhere and will require an actual hand to find it. There is also the possibility that it is contained on a microfilm within the library system. This saves you the trouble of having to leaf through the old and easy to damage pages of a newspaper, but it is no faster. Microfilms are just transparencies that have the newspaper pages printed on them. They keep for much longer than paper while taking up much less room in storage. Microfilms, however, are not a digital alternative to print, and still require hand searching.
If you're lucky, the information that you need will be contained on a database that you can search right from your home. In some cases, the database will just tell you where and when the article was printed so you can more easily find the issue or microfilm form the library. In others, though, the whole text of the obituary is available online. It isn't considered an official copy, but it should give you the same information.
For instance, the Alexandria Gazette has an Obituary Index that spans 1915-1946. It doesn't offer access to the actual articles, but it provides the information on when the obituary was published and what page it's on in the issue.
The State of Virginia government website, Virginia.gov, hosts a comprehensive listing of obituaries that spans from the late 18th century to the early 20th century and covers most of the Richmond area. The Henley Marriage/Obituary Index was compiled by Bernard J. Henley of the Richmond Public Library prior to his death. The entire text of the obituaries are typically available through a simple search of key terms. The database also gives information on where the microfilms are located as well as what publication the obituary came from.
If you aren't sure what newspaper the obituary was published in, but you know the city or county, the Library of Virginia has a locator, called the Virginia Newspaper Project, that allows you to bring up each of the newspapers that have been published in the area and tells you where the microfilms are located.
For instance, if you know that your grandfather lived in Cape Charles, Virginia, you can search Cape Charles to get a list of 5 newspapers that were published in the area. Further, it will give you the dates of publication. If your grandfather passed away in 1963, you would be able to figure out that only one of the papers in the town was in publication then. From there, you you select the Northampton Times. Underneath, it will tell you that the Northampton Times is available as a microfilm at the Library of Virginia while the original is at the Virginia Historical Society.
If you have gone through all of the previous steps including any available databases for the county and the county libraries, it's always possible that an obituary was never published. It may have been against the wishes of the deceased to make a public announcement. Additionally, it may have been cost-prohibitive for the family at the time. Either way, obituaries are not a state requirement and only represent social custom. As a result, there are many people who chose to forgo them.