Obituaries then and now

3/9/2021 Teri Barnett

By Teri Barnett

Obituaries are the most frequent items I get asked to look up in the presidential library's Newspapers on Microfilm Collection. This is because we have at least one title from each of Illinois’s 102 counties, which results in over 100,000 reels of microfilm! Many times, we have newspapers that other libraries do not.

Sometimes the request is from a person wanting the obituary of a dear friend or cousin who has recently passed away, which are two requests that arrived recently, or it is a genealogist looking for that next clue to further the family tree back another generation. The language used in those obituaries is always surprising, especially those from the early 1900s, compared to the obituaries we see today.

In looking at my own family tree, I have a couple examples of a surprising obituary due to the language used in it. My third great-grandfather John Foale, who passed away December 19, 1910, in Decatur, Ill., had the headline of “John Foale Falls Dead At His Home” in the Decatur Review dated December 19, 1910. In reading his obituary, it explains the manner of his death, which it was so sudden that “he fell over dead.”

My husband’s third great-grandfather Asbury Boze, who passed away January 28, 1921, had the headline of “Asbuury (sic) Boze Drops Dead of Apoplexy” in the Wayne County Press dated February 3, 1921. This obituary stated, “Just as started to go he dropped over dead.”

When reading obituaries like these, it is a shock and surprise because this language is not common in obituaries written in the present day. One must keep in mind that these obituaries were written during a time when knowing the morbid details of a death was common in newspapers. As a result, journalists at the newspaper wrote obituaries with a focus on this information. Some also believe that knowing these details of the person’s death was a part of closure in the grieving process.

The obituaries published in today’s newspapers and online sites are very different. Some would say that they are formulaic in the way they are written due to the same words and information being expressed in them. They are more thoughtful and considerate of the family and loved ones of the person who passed away. Obituaries of the present day are either written by staff of the funeral home, which was not done in the early 1900s, or by family members.

When submitting a request for an obituary to be looked up, please provide the full name and date and location of death of the individual in question. If they died in Decatur, but lived in Assumption, then please provide that information as well. I then know that if I cannot find an obituary in the Decatur newspapers, I should look in the Assumption newspaper if we have one available.

Please keep in mind that if an obituary is not found, it does not mean that an obituary was not published. It depends on the time frame of the death and what newspapers on microfilm we have in our collection. You can view the newspapers we have in our collection at

Teri Barnett is the ALPLM's newspaper librarian

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