Over my 40 years of research, I have read hundreds and hundreds of obituaries.
And with each obituary I read, the need for caution in trusting them becomes more and more obvious.
Who Got Left Out?
I think my first encounter with a blatantly incorrect obituary happened in the Manistee, Michigan Public Library, where I was searching the microfilmed Manistee News-Advocate for an obituary for my great- grandmother, Claudia Thompson Randall. The last paragraph read:
"Mrs. Randall was born in Manistee in 1875 and resided here until 10 years ago when the family moved to Detroit. Her mother, Ida M. Thompson, preceded her in death in 1906. She is survived by her husband, a son Ray, a brother Walter S. Thompson of Detroit, a sister, Bessie B. Porter of Oakland, Calif., and her father in this city." ("Former Resident Dies at Detroit," Manistee News-Advocate, 28 October 1931.)
That obituary, presumably dictated by her husband Herbert Randall, made no mention of her daughter Bessie Randall Stoelt, or her 3-month-old granddaughter, Mary Elizabeth Stoelt, who was my mother. According to family stories, there was a disastrous confrontation between Bessie and her parents during Bessie's pregnancy, and she never saw them again. That split was deep and long-lasting, because at the time of Herbert's death in 1946, he had yet to meet his only granddaughter.
Aside from omitting family members, obituaries often neglect to mention names of family members, especially the widows who are left behind. This obituary below has bothered me since I first saw it several years ago: not only did the widow not have a name, but her chief claim to fame was that she was a niece of General U.S. Grant!
Recently I was exploring the family that lived in Highclere Castle, specifically the American heiress Anne Catherine Tredick Wendell, who married Lt. Col. Henry George Alfred Marius Victor Francis Herbert, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon. Catherine's father Jacob Wendell, a famous stage actor, died of pneumonia when Catherine was a child. Every obituary I found listed a different number of children.
("Jacob Wendell, Jr., Dead" The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 22 April 1911, p.1, col. 2; digital image, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com: accessed 11 March 2016).
("Jack Wendell, Millionaire Actor, is Dead," New York Evening World, 22 April 1911, p.1, col. 4; digital image, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com: accessed 11 March 2016).
("Jacob Wendell, Jr., is Dead," New York Times, 23 April 1911, p.11, col. 1; digital image, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com: accessed 11 March 2016).
"Two sons and two daughters":
"Jack Wendell Dead," The Portsmouth (NH) Herald, 24 April 1911, p.6, col. 2, digital image, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com: accessed 11 March 2016).
"Jacob Wendell, Jr.'s Children Get Trust Fund," New York Clipper, 20 May 1911, p.1, col. 4; digital image, Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections (http:www.idnc.library.illinois.edu: accessed 11 March 2016).
Who Were Emmett Allen's sisters?
Recently I was trying to find the names of Emmett Lincoln Allen's parents. Emmett Allen died in Port Angeles in 1951; his death certificate had "unknown" for his parents' names. I went to the Washington State Library to look up his obituary in the Port Angeles Evening News.
("Emmett Allen Dies Tuesday Evening," Port Angeles (WA) Evening News, 13 September 1951, p.8, col. 2.
Don't trust the obituaries!