Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Obituaries: A Lively Resource

In the Microforms Room of the Birmingham Public Library, our most common reference requests focus upon obituaries.

Patrons call, write, or visit from all over the world in order to find copies of their ancestors’ or relatives’ obituaries as part of their genealogical research. Most of these patrons utilize our online
Obituary Index to Birmingham Area Newspapers when preparing a visit or when placing a request for a copy of an obituary.

Although the strictest definition for an obituary is a short, biographical account of a life as written by a newspaper or magazine upon the event of the subject’s death, the generally recognized definition now includes the paid death notices found within the newspaper. These death notices are usually written by the family of the deceased in cooperation with the funeral home.

Over the years, there have been many changes in the development of obituaries in Birmingham area newspapers. Perhaps the most striking change that has occurred within the obituary section of The Birmingham News is that the paper only began accepting paid death notices for African-Americans in the mid 1960’s. A gentleman by the name of E. A. Bradford - the owner of Bradford’s Insurance Company as well as Bradford’s Funeral Home - is the earliest paid death notice for an African-American citizen that the staff in Microforms has encountered. His obituary was published on December 11, 1966.

In the earliest days of The Birmingham News (the 1890’s), obituaries were rarely published for citizens of the Birmingham district. In fact, almost all of the obituaries that appeared in the paper around the turn of the 20th century were for prominent citizens from other cities around the state. It was only during the late 1920’s that the placement of an obituary within the newspaper became a common service provided by funeral homes in the Birmingham area.

The earliest obituaries published in The Birmingham News were placed under the heading of “Necrological” and were usually found alongside the tables listing the market prices for dry goods and groceries on Morris Avenue. The paper began alternating between the headings of “Deaths and Funerals” and “Mortuary” for the obituary section beginning in 1903 and by this time almost all of the entries were for citizens of the Birmingham district. The Birmingham News finally incorporated an expanded obituary section within the classifieds in 1929 and gave it the heading of “Deaths” - a practice that continued with minor stylistic changes until 2005 when the heading changed to “Obituaries.”

The style of writing found within obituaries has also evolved over the years. The swooning Victorian style of the late 19th century has gradually been replaced by the terse prose of a society accustomed to reading in electronic formats. For example, the phrase “passed away” has replaced the once common term “succumbed.” Yet, the length of obituaries has increased dramatically over the past fifty years - earlier obituaries were often no longer than three or four sentences in length. Most contemporary obituaries are at least three or four paragraphs in length and contain a wealth of genealogical information.

For those who might be interested in looking for their relatives’ obituaries in our microfilm collections - our online
Obituary Index to Birmingham Area Newspapers is an excellent starting point. This database currently indexes obituary citations for The Birmingham News (April 1929 - January 1980), The Birmingham World (September 1940 - December 1996), The Birmingham Times (August 1973 - August 1974), Methodist Christian Advocate/Alabama Christian Advocate (January 1925 - December 1979), as well as The Shelby County Reporter (January 1932 - December 1979). This is an ongoing project and coverage will be expanded in the coming years.

Obituaries for individuals who passed away prior to the coverage dates of our online database can occasionally be found by manually scrolling through our microfilm copies of the newspaper within five to seven days of the date of death. We also have microfiche indexes covering the obituaries (and nearly all other published articles) of The Birmingham News as well as The Birmingham Post-Herald from 1979 until 2002.

Also, the
Birmingham News (Backfile) database (a free resource for JCLC card holders) contains full-text versions of all obituaries published in The Birmingham News since April 27,1993.

If you have any questions, please feel free to visit us in the Microforms Room or give us a call at 205-226-3625 or contact us via the
Obit Ask-A-Librarian form.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although some may describe it as a macabre past time, there are several books available within the library system available for patrons with an interest in reading obituaries for their literary merits:

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiff, and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson.

52 McGs: The Best Obituaries From Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr edited by Chris Calhoun.

Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives by Jim Sheeler.

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