How to Find Old, Archived Obituaries in California: Step-By-Step

Updated

Obituaries offer a glimpse into someone’s life and legacy. In the past, before states collected death records as vital statistics, these obituaries were often the only official record of someone’s death. Whether you want to find an obituary to connect with ancestors or learn about local history, you might have a hard time finding these documents. 

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California has collected records for a long time, unlike other states, but you may not know how to find an obituary older than the 20th century. Still, you can tap into a variety of search tools and resources that help you find an obituary. 

Whether starting your own genealogy research or looking into a specific obituary, this guide can help you find old California obituaries archives. The age of the record can make this tricky, but you can still find these old death records. 

What’s the Difference Between an Obituary and a Death Notice?

To begin, let's discuss whether you want a death notice or obituary. A death notice, a formal notice of someone’s death, was commonly published in newspapers for the public to see. These were common in years past, when it was expensive to print longer messages in newspapers. They offered a way to notify the community of a death. 

Today, obituaries often get published after someone dies. These didn’t gain popularity until after the 1940s, when it became easier for the average person to publish longer notices in the newspaper. An obituary offers more than a simple death notice. It shares greater details about someone’s life, legacy, and descendants. 

While it’s not impossible to find obituaries from decades past, you might have a harder time doing so. In the early 20th century, obituaries were typically only published for well-known public figures or celebrities. Frankly put, they were expensive and not practical for the average individual. 

Whether you’re looking for a death notice or an obituary, many of these old documents were archived through research groups and local organizations. We’ll now share where to begin your search so you can determine whether a record exists. 

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Where Can You Find Old or Archived Obituaries in CA?

California has many online and in-person record-keeping resources. You can find many archived obituaries online from the comfort of your home. Use the resources below to guide your search. 

California State Library

The California State Library has one of the largest archives online in the state of California. It has endless collections to browse digitally but it really excels with its newspaper collection. Over 2,200 titles available online date back to 1846 from each of the 58 counties in California. Through this collection, you can also browse other newspaper databases and explore microfilm. 

Even better, California’s State Library offers research help specifically for obituaries. If you can’t visit a library in person, you can submit an interlibrary loan request through your local library. It can connect you with regional newspapers on microfilm from any newspaper in the country. 

Los Angeles Public Library

Looking for an obituary in Los Angeles? Look into the Los Angeles Public Library, a great resource. You can access the "Los Angeles Times" historical database, which dates back to the 1880s. You can also find subscriptions for state-level archives. You can visit a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in person or online to explore its databases. 

Southern California Genealogical Society

This free database was created by the Southern California Genealogical Society to help people find old family records. Though incomplete, you can easily search by first and last name. Obituary data spans 1988 to 2004. 

Obituaries Help California

Obituaries Help offers a free genealogy research tool. Though it has access to fewer databases compared to other California archives, it offers a high-performing search option. Easily scroll through old obituary archives from different regions of California for a great place to begin your research. 

California Digital Newspaper Collection

The California Digital Newspaper Collection was created by the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research through the University of California, Riverside. You can browse newspapers by tag, county, date, and title. Over 576,942 issues exist in this extensive collection. It offers one of the best genealogical research tools in the state of California. 

Ancestry

Ancestry, one of the leading genealogy websites, has many of these same documents found in the archives above, though it has stronger search tools. You can search the Berkeley Public Library Obituary index, spanning back to 1894. 

Though Ancestry requires a paid membership, you can access it for free or with a free trial. From there, you can search by family line, name, and date. 

Family Search

You can also tap into a free option, Family Search, which compiles data from around the web and costs $0 to access. You can search specific records by county, year, or life event. Begin with Family Search's obituary index to find information about specific records. Some records exist behind a paywall or paid subscription, but you can take a great first step with this option. 

California Department of Vital Records

Consider submitting a death certificate request through the California Department of Vital Records if you're trying to learn how to find out if a loved one died. It's especially useful if you need to confirm the date someone died or place of death. When you begin your search with the other tools listed above, you can learn a lot. 

How to Find Old Archived Obituaries in California for Free

You can search in many ways using old archived obituaries for free, especially if you've never spent time doing genealogy research. Navigating these archives takes a bit of know-how, so follow the steps. 

Step 1: Gather information.

To begin, gather as much information about the deceased as possible to guide your search. Though you don’t need everything, you must have key information such as:

  • Full name (and maiden name, if applicable)
  • Place of death (city or county)
  • Funeral home
  • Place of burial (if applicable)
  • Date of death
  • Spouse name
  • Parents' names
  • Children’s names
  • Birthdate

Not only will this information guide your research, but it also helps identify the right records. You may find many cases of similar names, so you want to ensure you only use the correct documents. 

Step 2: Use newspapers.

It’s often easiest (and more affordable) to start with newspapers. You can find older obituaries through newspaper archive websites, local libraries, and so on. 

Many newspapers nowadays archive their old editions, often available online for free. In addition, you can contact a local paper to ask if it has a specific death notice or obituary. Though you might need a newspaper subscription, you can often access these for free through your local library branch. 

Step 3: Visit your library.

Speaking of local libraries, don’t underestimate just how many resources these branches have. Local libraries typically have access to state archives and even national archives. Even if they don’t have a specific publication, they can typically request it from other libraries in the nation or state. 

However, librarians can help you find documents, archives, and old records on microfilm. If you’re a California resident, you can usually take advantage of these services for free. 

Step 4: Explore ancestry websites.

You can also find key records from the comfort of home using ancestry websites. You can usually find a collection of free archives on these websites by date, county, and name. 

To make the most of these websites, consider getting a paid membership. You can start with a free trial and upgrade as needed or just pay for a single month's subscription to access the records you want. 

California Obituary Frequently Asked Questions

Check out some answers to common questions. When in doubt, consult with a local genealogy group or library branch for additional help. 

What if there isn’t an obituary?

Seeking a record from before 1940? You may not find a large obituary honoring the individual's death. That being said, if the deceased doesn't have an obituary, a public death record or announcement may exist, which still contains a lot of valuable information.

Are all obituaries available for free?

In California, you may have to pay for archived records. While these aren’t closed records, finding them might require a fee through an organization, newspaper, and so on. Luckily, you can get many records for free as a California resident. 

Can I access obituaries in other states?

If you’re seeking an obituary in another state, you might be able to access these through similar means. Ancestry websites, state-specific archives, and libraries all offer great resources. In many cases, your local California library branch can coordinate a search in another state through the loaning of records. 

Find an Older Obituary in California

Are you searching for an obituary in the Golden State? Try these steps above to guide your search. 

An obituary offers a glimpse into the past. By taking these steps to look back in time, you learn more about your ancestors and other generations. Though you can find many ways to access older, archived obituaries in California, many of these records have been protected through the years. 

By honoring these records, you keep the legacies of the past alive and well. 


Sources:
  1. “History of obituaries and death notices.” Newspaper Links. NewspaperLinks.com
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