During the 20th century, when a family or loved one passed away, the custom was to post a notice in the local newspaper (or newspapers) letting the community know. The small article would often indicate who the person was survived by as well as where the services were going to be held. Additionally, there may have been information on where to send remembrance gifts or donations.
While obituaries are still common, the digital age has made them much easier to track down as well as much less expensive to publish. There are websites that will keep track of obituaries, and some that even post them for free for families of the recently deceased as well as those who wish to track down the notice.
Obituaries from before the last 25 years are much more difficult to locate in many cases. Some newspapers have their information digitized and searchable for the 1980s and earlier, but many don't. That means that a quick Internet search won't yield the necessary results if you need the obituary for someone who died more than 20 or 30 years ago.
Despite the best efforts, one of the most frustrating issues when attempting to locate an obituary is that there is no way to know if one was published without doing some or all of the legwork. Death notices are not required, and may not have been published if the deceased did not want one. In some cases, the family could not afford to publish an obituary. Other times, the deceased did not have any local family, and there may not have been anyone to absorb to task.
To find on obituary in the state of Wisconsin, the place where you begin your search depends entirely on how much information you have before you embark on the task. In general, you need to know the name of the person who died as well as where and when he or she passed away.
If you know the full name of the person as well as the newspaper that the obituary was published in, the best place to start is at the newspaper itself. If the newspaper is still in print, you can call or head to the office of the paper. You will probably need the full name with the month and year that the person passed away.
If you aren't sure what paper the information was printed in or you are missing other important details, then the public library in the county where the person passed away is your best bet. Public libraries often keep copies of old newspapers for reference, and in many cases, they take on the task of digitizing older copies in order to have an Internet-accessible reference. In older areas with newspapers that have been established since the early 20th century, that is a lot of work and may take many years.
Every area does the organization of obituary records differently, so you'll have to either head to the branch of the county library to get more information or start at their website.
For instance, if the obituary was published in Oshkosh, an online index of all of the notices posted in newspapers is available through the Oshkosh Public Library. The records go back to the late 1800s and are all compiled in one place. Just enter as much information as you have about the person into the search boxes, and you'll get a comprehensive list of anyone with that name who had an obituary published in that time period. You won't be able to access the actual obituary, but you should be get the name and date of the publication. Then, a copy of it can be requested from either the organization that maintains them, like the library, or the publisher itself.
The Madison Public Library does things a little bit differently. Their online lists are not quite as comprehensive as Oshkosh's are as far as availability of the full body of data. The majority of the records can still be accessed online in some form, but information published in a local area paper prior to 1960 will require a written, verbal or email request with as much detail as possible to even verify that the obituary exists.
In the case of Madison, however, there are only two newspapers that would have obituary records, so your search is limited to begin with. Copies of the physical papers exist at the Madison Public Library, and they often encompass the majority of the public notices that have been posted in all of Dane County since the mid-to-late 1800s. Obituaries since 2002 can be searched through the Wisconsin State Journal website. They won't contain any images that were posted with them, but the notice should be available in its entirety.
For obituaries before 2002, but after 1960, the Madison Public Library uses one website to organize all of the information contained in historical documents from that period. The LINKcat newspaper index lets you search by name for the record. Once you find it, you can request a copy from the library using the information that the system provides. For records older than that, they must be individually requested from the library system directly without the help of a database of information. In order to request them, you must know a two week time frame of the date of publication or the date of the death. Then, you email, call or write the library with the request, and they will do their best to fulfill it.
The majority of the public library systems in Wisconsin have a similar system for finding information. In many cases, a database exists that allows you to get information about publication so that the document can be requested. Except in the case of more recent records, an online record of the actual notice is not always available.
When requesting information without a database to verify it's existence, you have to prepare yourself for the fact that it may not be available. Though in a perfect world, every document ever created with important information like an obituary would have an official and accessible archive copy somewhere, hard copy records can be hard to keep track of and even harder to guarantee the safety and integrity of. Floods, fires, negligence and natural disasters can get in the way of document preservation.
Regardless, your search is important and should be completed! There are plenty of resources for you to use if you don't have all of the information, and there are even more people who may be able to lend a hand if you hit a stumbling block along the way.