What genealogist doesn’t wish their ancestors had left better — and perhaps more personal — records of their existence? Although a daily diary detailing their every thought and action would be ideal, we’d all probably settle for a fragile old letter or a family Bible.
The lack of these precious artifacts, and the facts within them, is one of the reasons why we spend our hours in courthouses, cemeteries, archives, and attics searching for pieces we can put together to create the picture of our ancestors’ lives.
Knowing this, why is it that we, as family historians, often do a poor job of preserving our own personal histories for the generations to come?
I’m not referring to our genealogical research; chances are you’ve backed up, boxed up, labeled, and organized your own family tree and its collateral records and photos and know exactly which lucky descendent will inherit them. (if not, you may want to try our organization course)
No, by “personal history,” I’m referring to the thoughts, places, people, and occurrences that have made up your own life, and how you’ve planned for your children, grandchildren, and other folks who will want to know more about you in the future.
Have you been so busy studying the lives of others that you’ve forgotten to capture your own? If so, here are a few steps to take and things to think about now to prevent regrets later.
Gather records of vital importance
Think about the records you review and collect for each of your ancestors: Birth, death, and marriage certificates; divorce records; census data; military discharge papers, etc. Now think about how much more difficult these records are to obtain the more recently they were issued.
For example, most states restrict birth certificates to only qualified applicants (parents or the person on the certificate themselves) for 100 or 125 years without legal documentation. Census records aren’t available until 72 years after the enumeration, and full military papers aren’t available to anyone but the veteran or his or her next of kin within 62 years of discharge.
You can save your descendants the frustration of waiting out these restriction periods or jumping through legal hoops to access records pertaining to you by ordering them now for yourself. Keep copies of your vital records in a safe place where your family members will know to find them, or leave them with your attorney to present to your family after you’re gone. Gathering a birth or marriage certificate is pretty straightforward, but did you know that you can also request copies of yourself in census records from your childhood?
Record your memories
Consider recording a video, or a series of videos, in which you share your life story, special memories, or words of wisdom. Your children might even want to interview you, as you’ve (hopefully) interviewed so many of your own relatives for genealogical reasons.
Making videos no longer requires complicated technology or even any creative talent. Use the camera in your smartphone, tablet or laptop and save your recordings in the cloud or in a file on your computer or other device (flash drive, external hard drive, etc.). Just be sure to make sure your family knows they exist and where they can find them.
Another option is to write down your story — and again, no extraordinary expertise is required! There are plenty of fill-in-the-blank books and journals that prompt you with questions about your past and current lives as well as your hopes for the future.
For those who are more comfortable with writing, consider composing a legacy letter. Also known as an ethical will, a legacy letter is a document you create to communicate your life lessons, experiences, and values to your loved ones. Unlike a last will and testament, where you write about the possessions you’re leaving behind, a legacy letter is about the intangible things you want your descendants to know after you’re gone, and it doesn’t have to be composed or witnessed by an attorney — although you could leave your letter(s) with your attorney to be distributed to your family when your will is executed.
Organize and label your photos
The days of one-hour photo processing stands and formal portrait studios are dwindling with the ever-increasing quality and convenience of the cameras in our phones. Often, though, this means that the majority of our snapshots stay trapped in those devices for months, years, and perhaps even forever without being printed or shared.
Then there are the decades-worth of pre-phone-camera images that currently reside in shoeboxes, photo processing envelopes, external hard drives, and even on negatives and slides all around our homes.
Family historians are keenly aware that identifying the subjects and dates of our ancestors’ unlabeled photographs can be challenging — and the number of photos we’ve inherited are likely only a tiny percentage of the volume of images we’re probably leaving behind. So let’s all do our kids, grandkids, and anyone else who will inherit our photo collections a huge favor and leave them photos that are appropriately printed, labeled, and organized — and therefore more likely to be preserved and passed down.
Think about permanent memorialization
Did you know that nearly 58% of Americans chose cremation over burial in 2021? Cremation is growing in popularity every year for a variety of reasons, including cost, family mobility, environmental impact, and convenience. Additionally, about 44% of people who choose cremation would like for their loved ones to scatter their ashes rather than keep them in an urn at home or inter them in a church or cemetery.
Cemeteries have always been important destinations for genealogists. In addition to being physical places we can visit to honor our ancestors, cemeteries help us learn about our family members. We glean clues from the data on headstones, the arrangement of plots, and even the history of the cemetery itself. So what happens to all that information when a family member chooses cremation, their cremains are scattered in one or more sentimental spots, and there’s no urn or gravestone to memorialize them?
Although we family historians will be sad to see the demise of traditional burial, we also want to honor the final wishes of our loved ones. Our descendants will also want to honor our own plans for disposition, even if that means there’s no physical location they can visit.
If that’s important to you, though, consider purchasing a niche in a columbarium where your name can be engraved and future generations can find your memorial. You can also leave instructions for your family to add a plaque, bench, or other physical memorial where your ashes were scattered. Also,
Alternatively, memorialization on a site like FindAGrave can create a virtual record of disposition for those who choose non-cemetery dispositions. In fact, FindAGrave offers simple instructions for creating memorials for cremation, burial at sea, those lost at war, and other non-burials.
Hire a professional
If these options for preserving your own life (and death) story seem daunting, consider seeking out a professional personal historian via a Google search or by asking for a referral from your local archivists or local history librarians. Personal historians sometimes specialize in certain media (video, oral histories, memoirs, etc.) and can help you with particular life history projects.
No matter what avenue you pursue, it’s important to take the time to consider your own legacy. Put yourself in the shoes of your third- and fourth-generation descendants and think about what you’d want to know if you were them. You wouldn’t want your life to become your great-great-grand-nephew’s infuriating brick wall.
You’re invited: Join your fellow researchers in our fun, online family history courses. Start here.
Thank you to Patricia Hartley for creating this guide. Patricia has been researching family history for over 30 years and has an M.A. in Public Relations/Mass Communications from Kent State University.