Searching for vital records is usually the first step we take in researching an ancestor. For death records in particular, we often search first for death certificates, then for religious burial records, obituaries, cemetery records, or gravestones. Having found one or more of those records, we generally stop there. Even more experienced researchers often forget about the potentially rich resource of funeral home records.
What’s included in funeral home records can vary significantly. For great examples of the variety you may come across, check out this 8-minute YouTube video from the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. Or see Tina Beaird’s 1-hour YouTube video, “Death Demystified: Digging Deeper into Coroner & Funeral Home Records,” found on this page from Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbroke, Illinois. Or see FamilySearch’s wiki page, United States Funeral Home Records.
The purpose of this article, however, is more specific. What about records from a funeral home that is no longer in business? What happens to those records? Where do they go? And how do we find them? The answer is a very common one in genealogical research: it depends.
Perhaps the first thing to remember is that funeral homes are not government institutions. They are private businesses. As such, they have no particular requirement to provide records to genealogical researchers. Funeral homes are directed at the state level, and some state laws mandate a record retention period, but that period is generally less than a decade. In some states, retention periods are merely suggested. Beyond that, funeral homes are not obligated to maintain or archive older records. Thankfully, many of them do anyway. If the funeral home that buried your ancestor is still in business, you’re in luck. Just call them and find out if they kept the records. If that funeral home is out of business, however, a little more leg work is required.
Other Funeral Homes
Funeral homes that go out of business are often bought by other funeral homes. In many cases, the records of the former are transferred to the latter. In more rural areas, you can just start calling the few funeral homes in the area to find out if they bought the business you’re researching. In these cases, even if a home you call did not buy the business, they may know who did. Businesses with few competitors often know their competitors well and know who, if anyone, bought the defunct business. If they don’t, move on to the next funeral home.
In more urban areas, the list of funeral homes to consider may be large and rather intimidating. In these cases, you might try a different tack. In New York State, for example, you can consult the state’s list of Funeral Directing Reports – Closed Firms. That list provides the name of the firm, its address, and the date it closed. You might then consult the state’s list of Funeral Directing Reports – Open Firms – County Facility Listing, arranged by county, which includes phone numbers for each.
Perhaps the most focused method of narrowing down the list of open homes to contact is to consider the date the firm closed (if you have access to that information). Using that date, search among local newspapers around that date for possible notices of the firm’s sale to another funeral home. Such sales were commonly reported in newspapers.
If you don’t have luck with newspapers, try city directories for that year. If there is a business directory portion of the city directory, the list of funeral homes operating at the time should be in a nice, neat list. Compare that list to the list of currently open homes, and the resulting list of homes that operated both then and now will likely be a shorter list to consider. The farther back in time you look, the shorter that list will be. Then call those homes.
In the absence of a closing date, you can also narrow down the list to consult by considering the open funeral homes closest to the defunct home you’re researching. They are the most likely businesses to have bought homes going out of business. If that still doesn’t work, have you run out of options? Not yet.
Libraries and Their Archives
Though funeral home directors are under no obligation to archive their older records, some of them recognize the value of those records and make an effort to preserve them. In some instances, those records are donated to a local library. In searching the archives of libraries, be sure to check both local libraries, including university libraries, and regional libraries.
At the Mid-Continent Public Library, for example, a search of its catalog using the term “funeral home records” returns 472 results. A few of those results refer to archival records in manuscript form, and a few refer to records in microform. Importantly, however, 461 of those results refer to funeral home records that have been preserved by way of publication. In this way, libraries are significant repositories for many funeral home records.
Don’t forget to consult both the Family History Library and WorldCat, a global catalog of 17,900 libraries around the world. WorldCat is not the end-all-be-all, however, so don’t overlook the local searches.
Genealogical and Historical Societies
Finally, don’t forget some of our favorite repositories: the libraries of genealogical and historical societies. Some of the larger societies may have their holdings referenced in WorldCat, but many of the smaller societies do not. Search their catalogs separately. Since these societies are often responsible for publishing such records, be sure to consider both their archives and their published books. Even if you don’t find manuscript or published materials for the defunct funeral home, local city or county societies in particular are often a wealth of information for local history. A visit or call to the society may give you information you simply can’t find online.
If you’re facing the challenge of trying to find defunct funeral home records, you now have several tools at your disposal to utilize. If you’ve already found those records through some other method, please post below and tell us about it. We’re all better researchers when we take a moment to learn from each other.