Unveiling Lives Through Obituaries

Obituaries, a treasure trove for genealogists, can weave intricate family tales and unveil the hidden threads in one’s family tree. I love a good obituary that makes an effort to detail all living relatives and all pre-deceased relatives. Sometimes there is an unexpected answer in these details, such as half-siblings or blended families that were previously confusing. A well-crafted obituary is a time-encapsulated data nugget.

Yet, the charm of obituaries seems to be waning in the 21st century. I find joy in the comprehensive obituary, a timeless practice that deserves a revival.

Beyond family details, obituaries can be subtle clues to a person’s sexuality. Consider the case of Robert Bagot, whose obituary mentions his “longtime partner” Louis Young, providing a glimpse into their relationship. Living in Montrose, a gay neighborhood, further suggests the context of homosexuality.

Another poignant example involves Anne and Adele. They were the partners listed in the 1915 New York Census discussed in the partner blog. Adele’s obituary in 1932 refers to her as the “intimate friend of Miss Anne Clark, who had lived with her for the past 38 years.” How can anyone interpret that as anything other than a lesbian marriage?

In deciphering obituaries, look for code words like “lifelong bachelor,” “longtime companion,” or “devoted friend.” In the latter part of the 20th century, we might find same-sex couples using terms like husband or wife to refer to their partners in obituaries, but in the periods preceding that era, we should be attentive to more nuanced forms of acknowledgment.

The AIDS epidemic has left a profound mark on the LGBTQ community, reflected in the numerous obituaries from the San Francisco Bay Area. The GLBT Historical Society and the Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) have collaborated to digitally publish obituaries since 1972, each narrating tales of strength, love, and support.

In a world increasingly turning to brief digital notices, let’s not forget the power of the obituary to illuminate lives and offer a glimpse into the intimate stories that shape our family histories.

“Robert Bagot” Houston Chronicle, 12 Mar 2014, digital image, Legacy.com  ( accessed 2016). Courtesy of Geoff Kulik.
“Miss Adele Albro,” Sandy Creek News, 16 June 1932, p. 4; digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers (accessed 7 September 2014). Courtesy of Blaine Bettinger.