Reading obituaries and death notices to dig for information sounds like an old school espionage thing – and it is. It was part of intelligence collection tradecraft long before the term OSINT was coined.
Whether you are a genealogy researcher, a private investigator, a general enthusiast of the past or a casual Halloween OSINT hobbyist, you are nearly guaranteed to expand your investigative scope using some of the approaches described here.
The example below was taken from a genuine obituary, with personal information redacted – but nevertheless it should give you an idea of the wealth of details that are potentially obtainable.
Most obituaries can be searched very effectively using Google operators, for instance:
The above techniques can be replicated across multiple other sites. An even more targeted approach will include compiling a list of obituary sites and creating a Google custom search engine to search those resources in bulk.
If you are new to Google search engine creation, see my previous blog post on this topic.
Obituary and death notice sites
Not an exhaustive list for sure, since every country in the world has their own obituary websites. The focus of this post is on the resources in the English language. Remember that the beginning of every research should including establishing the scope and the resources to use – in your case, it might be more appropriate to create an expanded / your own list of obituary and death notice sites.
- Funeral Guide – https://www.funeralguide.co.uk/obituaries
- Funeral Notices – https://funeral-notices.co.uk/
- iNotice – https://www.inotices.ie/death-notices/
- Obituaries Online – https://www.obituariesonline.co.uk/home
- RIP.ie – https://rip.ie/
- Roots Web Obituaries – https://obituaries.rootsweb.com/obits/searchObits
Locating graves and burial records online
There are hundreds of sites that allow you to virtually visit graveyards all around the world – the short list below is just for illustration purposes. Or to be used as a starting point. While these sites are most often used to track heritage and identify deceased family connections, they can also be useful for OSINT.
- Billion Graves – global GPS cemetery data collection. The site also has a mobile app, as well as a blog where additional useful information can be found (for example, see this post on gravestone symbols).
- Death Indexes – a collection of mainly US specific resources for locating graves.
- Deceased Online – database for UK burials and cremations.
- Find a Grave – self proclaimed “world’s largest grave site collection”.
- Internment – over 25+ million cemetery records globally.
- Irish Graveyards – grave locations and graveyards surveys in Ireland.
- Names in Stone – offers access to paper records, maps, and documents from various cemeteries.
Deceased persons & metadata
We usually associate metadata with online & offline digital activity. Metadata and death records sounds like an unlikely pairing, but there are a number of valid approaches to deriving more granular information from metadata linked to deceased people.
Examples listed below can be very specific and context dependent, but they prove that one can effectively use non-standard approaches to this topic.
- Data analysis of national death indexes – based on the example of this US specific resource (and similar resources that are available in other countries or general EU stats like these), it is possible to conduct a deep dive, statistics based research of causes of death, mortality rates and other figures.
- Keeping count of posthumous military awards – as illustrated by the article from Inform Napalm, this approach can be effective in estimating a more accurate casualty figure in a conflict scenario, especially if there is a suspicion that officially released figures cannot be trusted. Serial numbers of the most recently issued posthumous military awards can be compared to the official casualty figures. At least two conditions must be met here : 1) Knowing the status quo before the conflict; 2) Sequential numbering of medals awarded to the fallen soldiers.
- Geo-location and aerial views of cemeteries – rapid expansions of burial grounds seen on satellite imagery (see the Reuters video) can be examined to corroborate the scale of deaths in a conflict. Note that this method can be heavily reliant on local knowledge – for example, confirmation by well informed locals as to which graveyards are being used to bury war casualties. Incomplete or incorrect identification of burial grounds will lead to incomplete or incorrect estimates.
- Analysis of government tenders – this was one of the angles taken by Molfar (see my Molfar Q&A interview), where their analysts estimated the scale of enemy combatant casualties by reviewing body bag tender orders and purchases by state departments.