How to Find Old Obituaries in Massachusetts for Free: Step-By-Step

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An obituary is a written announcement of someone’s death, and it usually shares some of the key moments of their life. Typically published in newspapers and online, these are a glimpse into someone’s relationships, accomplishments, and legacy. If you’re wondering how to find an obituary, you have many different options. 

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While not all families choose to publish obituaries for their loved ones, it’s considered a common part of funeral etiquette. Each state typically has its own archives and digital log of obituaries since they’re an important part of recordkeeping and genealogy.

If you’re looking to find old obituaries in Massachusetts, you might not know where to begin. Depending on the age of the obituary (and whether it exists at all), there are different methods for beginning your search. However, you should be able to find almost anyone’s obituary as long as you have the right information. In this guide, we’ll share how to find old obituaries in Massachusetts for free. 

The History of Obituaries in Massachusetts

Before we begin, it’s worth discussing the history of obituaries in Massachusetts and the United States in general. Though the very first obituaries began being published in ancient Rome around 59 BCE, they didn’t become popular until much later. In fact, they weren’t published in North America frequently at all until the mid-to-late-1800s. 

Even then, in these early days of obituary publication, these existed mostly as death announcements. The publication would typically list the name and surviving family of the deceased. The only exception was for famous people, like politicians or wealthy businessmen. The average person was lucky to receive a small blurb in local papers. 

In the mid-1900s, longer obituaries became more common. In those years, the modern obituary template took shape, and it’s largely similar to what people write about deceased loved ones today.

This means if you’re seeking an obituary in Massachusetts that’s older than the 1940s, it’s unlikely that it will be found at all. If it is, it might only be a small blurb or death announcement. The death notice or obituary would have been a sign of wealth or notoriety in past centuries. 

Where Can You Find Old or Archived Obituaries in Massachusetts?

That being said, there are several places both in person and online that you can find old or archived obituaries in Massachusetts. Before you begin your search, it’s a good idea to collect information about the deceased. See the section below for more tips to guide your search. 

Vineyard Gazette Index (1850 - 1875)

For all death notices and obituaries published in the Vineyard Gazette between January 4, 1850, and December 31, 1875, this index is a great resource. This includes on-island deaths for Martha’s Vineyard. Compiled by C. Baer in 1992, this remains one of the most comprehensive local death indexes in Massachusetts. 

Ancestry

Ancestry is one of the most comprehensive and trusted sources for vital records and obituaries. While you might need a paid subscription (or a free trial) to access some records, you can begin your search for free. Their best source of obituaries with millions of collections from across the United States is their U.S. Obituary Collection, 1930 - Current

Massachusetts Newspaper Obituaries

Another option is to browse the newspaper obituary archives found on Newspaper Obituaries. To start, search by county or city in Massachusetts. From there, you can search by newspaper publication or funeral home. There are some limits to this search tool, and you might need to pay a premium fee for some content. 

Obituary Links Page

Obituary Links Page is another newspaper archive tool. The Massachusetts obituary page links to databases and resources by county and publication. You can also search for specific obituaries by name and state. Note that some counties only have records for limited date ranges. 

Obituary Lookup Volunteers

If you need extra assistance looking up an obituary, Obituary Lookup Volunteers is the resource for you. You can submit a request to work with a genealogy volunteer when seeking a specific obituary. Otherwise, you can use the county-specific guide for more resources. You can also sign up to be a volunteer yourself if you’d like to help other people with their family history research.

Genealogy Buff

Genealogy Buff was created by genealogical experts who like to help others find key information about their family history. This website compiles some of the top resources as well as county-specific data. The best way to use this website is to search for a specific name using the sidebar. 

Massachusetts public libraries

Another option if you’d prefer in-person help is to visit a local public library. Libraries not only subscribe to local and state newspapers, but they are also staffed by research experts. These are often the best places for local data, research, and information. Librarians and researchers are used to working with the public to locate obituaries and other important records.

Massachusetts Archives Division

Last but not least, visit Massachusetts Archives online to see if you can find more information about the obituary this way. Not only can you find more information about county records, but you can browse digital documents, newspapers, and more. You can also learn how to plan your own research visit to the Massachusetts Archives. 

How to Find Old Archived Obituaries in Massachusetts

Before you begin your search, there are some things to know about how to find old archived obituaries in Massachusetts. Not only is there key information you’ll need to guide the process, but you should also follow these helpful tips. 

Step 1: Determine if they died

Before you begin, determine whether or not the individual died. There are a few different ways to learn how to find out if a loved one died, but it’s often easiest to conduct a basic online search. 

Alternatively, you might be able to request a copy of a death certificate as long as you meet the state’s eligibility requirements. You don’t want to waste time on a search only to learn they’re still living. This is common for recent deaths or if you’ve lost touch with a family member or friend. 

Step 2: Gather key information

When you search for an obituary, the more information you have, the easier it will be. It’s easy to think that you only need the full name of the deceased, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. The more information you have, the easier it will be to track down the right document. 

So what do you need to get started? Try to find as much of the following as you can:

  • Full name (including the maiden name for women)
  • Date and place of birth
  • Places of employment
  • Name of spouse or surviving children
  • Date and place of death
  • Schools attended (and dates)
  • Degrees earned
  • The cemetery where they were buried
  • Funeral arrangements

Finding these obituaries is often like finding missing pieces of a puzzle. The more pieces you have, the easier it will be to find your way. Out of all the above, their name, dates of death, and the location of their death are the most important. 

Step 3: Start with local newspapers

With so many resources to choose from in the list above, it can be intimidating to know where to even begin. In most cases, it’s best to start with local newspapers in their city or county of death. It’s very common for the family to publish a death notice or obituary in a local paper, and this is the most cost-effective choice. 

Unless they were a high-level public figure, this is likely the only place their death notice was published. To search, check their local papers websites to see if they have an online obituary database or archives. You could also reach out to them directly to see if they’ve included an obituary for a specific individual in the past. 

Step 4: Online archives

If you don’t have success with a local newspaper, move along to online archives and genealogy websites. These websites do much of the hard work for you, digitizing records so they’re easy to search. 

To make sure you’re getting the best results on these websites, filter your search by location and date range. It helps to sign up for a premium membership (or trial) to unlock more advanced search options. 

Step 5: Order a death certificate

If you don’t have any luck finding an obituary, they might not have one. If they don’t have an obituary, you can still learn more about their death if you locate the death certificate. The Massachusetts Vital Records Office has all vital records from 1926 to the present, and the State Archives has all records from 1841 to 1925. 

Records from the State Archives are free and open to the public. If you’re looking for records from 1926 to the present, you will need to pay a fee for this search. Vital records like death and birth certificates have key information about the deceased like the cause of death, date of death, and so on. This can be a great help in your family history research. 

Find an Obituary in Massachusetts

Ultimately, there are a lot of effective ways to find an obituary for a loved one or ancestor in Massachusetts. Whether you’re interested in their tribute, death notice, or adding a branch to your family tree, it’s an act of remembrance to look back through time at these records. 

It’s often intimidating to start this search, so congratulations on taking this first step. It’s important to honor those you’ve loved and lost, and this is one of the many ways to keep memories alive through generations. 


Sources:
  1. Roos, Dave. “How Obituaries Went from Dry Death Notices to Tributes to Truth.” How Stuff Works: People and History. 3 December 2019. People.HowStuffWorks.com
  2. “Order a birth, marriage, or death certificate.” Massachusetts Department of Health. Mass.gov

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