Thursday, August 2, 2012

Is an Obituary an Original Source? Does It Matter?

Above is the obituary for my wife's maternal grandfather's second cousin's wife Ina (Smith) Burdick, 1862-1932. Some members of the ProGen Study Group have been debating whether an obituary is an original source. As all genealogists and historians should know but some still don't, sources may be original or derivative; the information they contain may be primary or secondary; and the evidence drawn from that information may be direct or indirect depending on the question we're asking at the moment.

Those of us who have left behind the "rip and run" school of genealogy want to analyze this evidence well, and these terms help us think clearly. But in my opinion the thinking is what matters, not which basket we decide to put it in. "Original" is no kind of baptism that absolves a record from all sin and error!

In Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills defines an original source as "material in its first oral or recorded form" (p. 24). By that definition, this newspaper item probably doesn't qualify. Ina's surname has been butchered, one suspects by a sleep-deprived funeral director or journalist taking hasty notes over the telephone. His or her notes in turn were set in type, and somewhere along the way Ina acquired in death a surname she never had in life. Note that the presence of error itself does not make the source derivative -- many original sources contain errors. But this particular error looks like an error in hearing, because even very bad handwriting doesn't make a V look like a B. In all likelihood, there was at least one earlier written form of this information from which the published obituary was set.

But we are most unlikely to be able to find the reporter's notes for an 80-year-old six-line obituary, so what was published may be as close to the original as we can get. (Any surviving records from J. P. Finley & Son's funeral home would be worth seeking out, though.) Another consideration: when we think of derivative sources, we usually think of, say, a published index of obituaries published in the Oregonian in 1932, or perhaps an on-line database created by re-keying the print index. Those derivatives would be at least one or two steps further removed from its first written form, and hence more prone to error. So some sources are more derivative than others. (And, as Tom Jones has been known to explain, a source that is derivative to any degree can be considered a red flag telling us to look for what it's a derivative of.)

So much for theory. What we really want to know is, IS IT TRUE? That question, alas, cannot be answered by staring fixedly at the obituary, nor by analyzing to death its exact degree of derivativeness. It can only be answered by correlating its information with information from other sources. The point of wondering whether it's original or derivative is not to provide a label ("APPROVED" or "TOXIC"). The point is to consider how that record was created and how it stacks up to Elizabeth's ten categories of textual criticism (pp. 32-38), so that we can weigh it properly in the balance along with any other obituaries, Ina's death certificate, Aleen's birth record, family letters, census returns, etc.

In plain language, we need to know where that information has been and what wringers it has gone through. Once we have that understanding, the choice of label becomes academic, because we're ready to weigh this source against the others. (Sound weird to learn the terminology and then rarely use it? Welcome to the spiral staircase of genealogy learning!) Confirmation, or proof, is never done solo, and never just by applying a label. It's always a group affair.

ADDED Saturday afternoon 4 August 2012: For more depth on this whole topic, plunge into Evidence Explained Quick Lesson #10.

"Ina Veurdick," [Burdick], obituary, Morning Oregonian (Portland), Wed. 13 July 1932, p. 7, col. 7.

Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007), 24, 32-38.

Harold Henderson, "Is an Obituary an Original Source? Does It Matter?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 2 August 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Anonymous said...

Great post, Harold! We need to look at ALL sources with a skeptical eye :) :) :)

Karen Stanbary said...

Thank so much for the clarification and digging deeper than definitions...a lesson well learned.

Sonja Hunter said...

I'm curious if you know if, in general, obits written in the late 19th century or early 20th century were written by family or by newspaper reporters. I would imagine in big cities people submitted information to the paper for publication. However, in small towns it could have been different. Now, I think it is the practice that family writes the obit, but I don't know if it has always been this way. There are cases in my tree where I'm curious who wrote the obit, because I detect "spin," but this far removed there is no way to know for sure. I would like to know your thoughts on this.

Harold Henderson said...

Sonja, I don't know, but if I succeed in finding out you'll read it here! I doubt there was any universal rule. And you don't have to wait for me to root around in newspaper histories: if your folks were in a town with two newspapers, try comparing the same person's obituary in the two for some evidence that applies to your particular location.

Shelley Bishop said...

Great to hear your thoughts on this, Harold. We had a similar discussion last week in Tom Jones' class at GRIP--that if we consider it to be a derivative, we have to ask what it's derived from.

Love your term, "rip and run genealogy." What a mental picture that conveys!

Lisa S. Gorrell said...


A great article and I had missed the article on the spiral staircase and read that, too! It's so wonderful that I'm going to post about it on our society's blog. On multiple obits of the same person, I have often seen them to be nearly identical. My guess, the family or the funeral home took care of those.