In genealogy research, as we’ve mentioned before, it is important to leave no stone unturned. You want to look for every available record about your ancestors, and that includes looking for the obvious sources (like census records and vital records), and then you also want to look for the less obvious sources (like newspapers, military service records, land transactions, etc.). We’ve written about several of these less-obvious sources before, and today we have another one to talk about: Funeral Home records. Funeral home records can be a great source for biographical details about our ancestors. Although undertakers have been around for centuries, funeral homes began operating at the turn of the 20th century and, most importantly to genealogists, generated records to keep track of the financial transactions. These ledger records evolved to include genealogical information that can substantiate what was included on a death certificate or in an obituary, or even act as a substitute when a death certificate cannot be located.
How to determine which funeral home was used
Often, death notices in the local newspapers reported which funeral home was being used. In the case of Lindsay F. Harman who died in 1962, his death notice stated that his remains were cared for first by the Osborn Funeral Home in Shreveport until they were transported to the burial location three hours away, at which point the Wells Funeral Home took over.
A quick Google search revealed that the Wells Funeral Home has since been purchased by another company that is still in operation today. An email was sent to the current company whose prompt response was appreciated. The requested record was supplied through email:
While this Record of Funeral was not fully filled in for this particular individual, if it had been, it had the potential to be a rich source of biographical details. Notice that besides the name of the deceased, the death date, and cause of death, there is a field for the person’s race, residence, marital status, military service, and age of the surviving spouse. In addition, we can see where the funeral service was held and the religion of the deceased, as well as early biographical details such as the names and birthplaces of his parents.
In most cases, the process of finding funeral home records begins by taking a step back and locating other records which would provide the name of the facility you’re seeking.
An excellent approach for locating death notices and obituaries is by searching digitized newspapers through large subscription search engines like Newspapers.com, Newspaperarchive.com, or GenealogyBank.com. Major genealogy sites such as FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com also contain databases of indexed obituaries. If the paper you seek is not found there, you may find success at the public library local to the place of death in question. Often, local libraries hold archived collections of their community newspapers on microfilm or hard copy, and will conduct a search for a small fee.
Once you know the name of the funeral home, the next step is to determine whether or not the company is still in operation, either in its original form or having been bought out and subsumed by another, and to obtain contact information. Google searches, local phone books, and the American Blue Book of Funeral Directors are typically effective resources. Alternatively, some genealogy websites like FamilySearch or Ancestry have digitized collections of funeral records, though these are not yet common and in most instances you will need to contact the funeral home itself.
If the funeral home is no longer extant, check with local libraries, historical and genealogical societies, or even state or regional archives – any or all of which may have copies of the funeral home records.
In the course of your search, keep in mind that not every query to a funeral home will be successful or as quick as you might like. Sometimes a funeral home records were not preserved, or do not contain the same level of useful biographical detail as others. Some do not have staff dedicated to or trained in addressing genealogical requests. And finally, some funeral homes cite privacy concerns and refuse to share their records, especially in more recent instances. While frustrating, they are under no legal obligation to do so, as they are private companies.
Still, you’ll never know if you don’t ask! A polite phone call, email, or letter should be effective in helping you learn what records are available, how to obtain them, and how much it may cost to do so.
Legacy Tree Genealogists is a full-service research firm committed to helping our clients learn more about their ancestry. Seeking and obtaining funeral home records relevant to your family members is just one of the many things we can do. Contact us today for a free consultation!