How to Find Archived or Old Obituaries in Iowa: Step-By-Step

Updated

Obituaries are a type of death notice, and you can learn a lot about the past by reading through these important documents. However, understanding how to find an obituary isn’t always easy. While modern obituaries are easy to search for, especially since most are published online, this isn’t true for obituaries that are a few decades old. 

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In the past, obituaries weren’t as common as they are today. Most people published death notices to announce a death to the community. Longer obituaries were limited to public figures and those with a high social standing since they were expensive to publish. This means finding these older documents isn’t straightforward. 

Luckily, if you’re seeking an archived or old obituary in Iowa, there are many places to search. In recent years, genealogical tools became very common and open to the public. This puts the power in the hands of the individual to find documents that matter to them and their families. Here’s how to find archived or old obituaries in Iowa. 

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

First, it’s important to understand the difference between an obituary and a death notice. Both obituaries and death notices were historically published in newspapers, but there have been a lot of changes over time. Since 1704, newspapers have been a regular part of American life. They grew in popularity (and affordability) after the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. 

Newspapers became an important part of community life, and obituaries and death notices were used as a way to spread the news locally about a loss. However, before 1940, it was common for families to only publish a death notice vs. a full obituary.

These death notices were shorter and more to the point, including only key information about the deceased. In those days, this was one of the only ways to find out if a loved one died.

In the mid-20th century, it became more common to share longer obituaries. These included more information like surviving family members’ names, occupations, funeral arrangements, and possibly even the cause of death. However, for older archived records, obituaries are not common. 

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Where Can You Find Old or Archived Obituaries in Iowa?

Whether you know if a loved one does or doesn’t have an obituary, there are a lot of places where you can find old or archived obituaries in Iowa. These resources are created by state officials, researchers, and genealogists. Here are where you might be able to track one down.

Ancestry

One of the best places to start your search for old or archived obituaries in Iowa is Ancestry. This is a free and paid tool designed to help people of all backgrounds discover their family histories. Though some of their content is locked behind a paid subscription, it’s easy to browse their available records from Iowa. 

My Heritage

An alternative to Ancestry is My Heritage. This is another paid site that helps you find your family history by browsing through old and archived records. With a large collection of obituaries and death notices, this can be an effective tool. Though you will need a free trial to begin, My Heritage helps thousands find their family records quickly.

State Archives

State Archives has Iowa public records. Created to provide genealogists with access to public records in Iowa, this is a paid resource. With records dating back to July 1880, you can request a record based on someone’s first and last name. While you can browse records for free, you will need to pay $10 for a printed copy. 

Iowa Department of Health

If you’re interested in ordering a vital record like a death certificate, you can purchase this through the Iowa Department of Health. The Department of Vital Records in Iowa has death records beginning in July of 1904 onwards. You can apply for these requests online or in person, and you will need to verify your identity.  

Genealogy Bank

Lastly, Genealogy Bank is a newspaper archive website similar to many of the above. Featuring clippings from newspapers starting in 1836 to 1976 in Iowa, this is a powerful resource. You can search by your ancestor’s last name or begin an advanced search. Though you’ll need a paid membership to access some documents, you can start with a free trial. 

How to Find Old Archived Obituaries in Iowa for Free

Regardless of whether you’re looking for a death notice or obituary, there are still free ways to access these records. Many of these below don’t require any special eligibility or verification, as long as you know key information about the deceased. 

Iowa Historical Society

For online resources available for free as well as in-person events, visit the Iowa Historical Society. Sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, this is an online resource for research and family history. Through the State Historical Museum of Iowa and the State Historical Library, there are several free resources available to Iowa residents online. 

Interment

Interment is an online cemetery resource with specific indexes by county in Iowa. With death records dating back to 1837, this is one of the easiest online resources to use. Though not all counties have public cemetery records, you can find thousands of details online for your death record search. 

Iowa State University

If you’re looking for a hard-to-find record, newspaper, or journal, Iowa State University’s Special Collections and Archives is a great place to begin. These materials have been preserved for decades for academic and genealogical research, and you can visit the ISU archive office in person to explore their reading room with the help of a research assistant. 

Davenport Library

If you’re an Iowa resident, you can access the Davenport Library System’s extensive online resources. The Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center has one of the largest collections on family history available to the public in Iowa. You can explore more than 50,000 local images, newspaper records, and so on. 

Death Indexes

Another well-known search tool is Death Indexes. This is a specialized search engine that uses thousands of archived documents to help locate specific death indexes and records. You can browse by county, year, and so on to find the record you’re looking for. 

Local newspapers

If you know the county someone died in, it’s a good idea to contact the local newspapers. Even if these papers don’t have archived records open to the public, they likely have their own archives. You could reach out to ask if they’ve ever included a death notice for your loved one. Many papers can search their records efficiently, and you might be surprised. 

Chronicling America

Created by the United States Library of Congress, Chronicling America provides access to digitized newspapers from 1789 to 1963. You can also use their search function to find information about American newspapers published from 1690 to the present, even if these older records aren’t yet digitized. Though you’ll need to search in-depth on your own, there are over 18 million records on Chronicling America. 

Tips for Starting Your Obituary Search

Before you begin searching for an obituary, it’s important to keep a few tips in mind. This can be a tricky process, especially if you’re new to genealogy. You know that obituaries and death records are a powerful way to learn about a loved one, but where do you find these documents?

To simplify your search, make sure you know this key information:

  • Death date or date range
  • Death place
  • Surname (and maiden name)
  • Family members (spouse, parents, children, etc.)

All of the above information will simplify your request. While the name is the most important information, recognize that there are likely to be many records with similar names. Knowing the date of death, family members, and so on will help you determine which record is the right one. 

From there, start your search for documents in the right date range and location. For example, if someone died in Davenport in 1910, search “Name, Davenport, Iowa, Death Records 1910” to see what results you get. Using specialized ancestry search engines can also help you narrow your requests. 

In the digital age, we’re so used to finding the information we’re searching for when we want it. If you can’t find a loved one’s death record or obituary right away, don’t fret. You might need to dig through less common sources or records to find the right information. Recruiting the help of a skilled genealogist or researcher can also help find more obscure records. 

Find Your Loved One’s Record

Ultimately, turning back the clock to look through old archived records can be an enlightening process. Though it’s tricky depending on how far back you wish to search, ancestry research brings peace and comfort as well as a feeling of connectedness to the past. 

Did your loved one have an obituary or death record? In Iowa, there are several free and paid resources to guide your search for these records. Though you’ll need to play detective to find the right documents, your ancestor’s story is out there waiting to be told. 


Source:

1. Meyerink, Kory L. “Obituaries: More Than Meets the Eye.” Genealogy. Genealogy.com

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