top of page

Honoring and Documenting Ancestors

Memorial Candle

I have some new insights about researching and documenting your family tree that I would like to share with you. A recent family death has brought new lessons to the family genealogist - me.

Our family matriarch's health began to decline six years ago which necessitated her relocation and downsizing from her home of several years. At that time we went through a fairly large box and a desk drawer full of photographs and had a great time talking about who the people were, where they were at the time, and what year it might have been, and I wrote all of this info down on the backs of the photos. Felt pretty smug about it too, I might add.

Black and white photos

We went through her scrapbooks which was a fabulous opportunity to learn more about her parents, grandparents and cousins. Looking at a photograph of the family picnic or wedding can help them remember things that will lead them to remember the identities of the unknowns. Old boyfriend photos and mash notes can be especially fun to talk about! Remind me sometime to tell you about Hal, her "amante."

My first recommendation to you, is nothing new to the genealogist. Document the people in the pictures! You think you will remember, but we don't! Even if we are not really old.

My second recommendation to help honor and care for your relative if you are downsizing, you might want to make sure there is a shredder or shredding service nearby. Six years ago the family destroyed over a decade's worth of tax returns, bank statements, receipts, etc. that were no longer needed so as not to move them to the new home (the elderly can be hoarders, and extra nervous about throwing the wrong thing away). This makes the painful process of cleaning out her apartment less arduous at this point.

stacks of papers

Thirdly, search ALL of the drawers. Don't rely on your elders' memory of where the important things are stored. We found a decorative metal box, say 12x15x4 inches, chock full of MORE pictures and some wonderful letters from ancestors exchanged in the 1920's. And these were handwritten, of course, and are offering wonderful insights and touchstones to people we can no longer interview about their life stories and experiences. I can hardly wait to go through them all!

I also found a genealogist's dream. A beautiful photo album prepared by the other family genealogist which we did not know existed! It is a beautiful piece of work she must have spent hours on over the years. Every page of the album includes a description of the event, the date of the event, and the location. Every person is clearly identified by first name, no matter how old or young. This was a very lovingly prepared gift, and the family will, no doubt be delighted to see it when gathered for the life celebration next week.

Fourthly (is that a word?), it's not macabre to discuss what your elderly family member may want in their obituary or in their memorial service. This will give you more insight than you may already have, and again, another great talking opportunity to unlock more stories from their past.

Urn candle flowers funeral

Fifthly, and lastly, the surviving family members will be presented with a lot of paperwork, a lot of questions, and a lot of options at the funeral home. Expensive options. If you had the preplanning conversation with your elder, you will already know what they wanted. You will already know what they would like you to say in their obituary. As a family historian you will know who their parents were and where they were born to complete the death certificate info they will expect you to fill out. And, special blessings to the family friend who advised you can buy your own urn and give it to the funeral home and save hundreds (no exaggeration) of dollars.

Some day we must talk about bereavement and mourning customs. In this day and age of cremation, you may have the option of putting your loved one into space like Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek, or turn their ashes into pieces of jewelry or other decorative items for your home. I'm still digesting this. Not sure at all this is a good thing!

My best wishes to you and yours as Thanksgiving approaches. I am thankful for you, my fellow genealogy devotees, and about a million other things this year.


If I can help you with your family research please let me know. A free initial quote or estimate is always available, I love family puzzles!

Thank you,

Leslie Ryan


bottom of page