Most older people have collected them. They are clipped with scissors and tucked away, often yellowed from age. Sometimes in a scrapbook, or maybe inserted into a Bible’s pages, they show names of relatives, close or distant. Each one represents a connection.
Obituaries. They include names, dates, places, family relationships and often information about professions, affiliations and interests. Sometimes a picture is included.
My husband’s grandmother died in February of 1998. Her only sister had died in November of 1993, having never married or had children. Both sisters lived in a nursing home before they died. Both sisters had pre-planned funerals, which took care of arrangements. Grandma had two sons. One died at age 31. The remaining son died in April of 1998 at age 68, about two months after his mother. He was a busy man and hadn’t yet taken action on paperwork for his mother or aunt at the time of his own death, but it sat all together organized in a box at his house. I had contact with his wife after he died and asked about finalizing their affairs. She told me she would send me the box, and she did.
I adored my husband’s grandmother and wanted to honor her by doing the right thing. I took a flight across the country. I closed small bank accounts, finalized financial records with the nursing home and state of residence and then notified family members about what had been done.
It was years before I realized that I had no obituary for Grandma or her sister. That fact has resurfaced numerous times though as I have gathered family information and researched family history. Most recently, a connection from ancestry.com asked about Grandma by name and requested a copy of her obituary. He wasn’t interested in her birth or death certificate, dates, accomplishments, interests or anything else that I had. He wanted her obituary. Why? Because in an obituary, family ties are revealed. The obituary shows the person’s link to parents and children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. All of the branches and leaves of the family tree are connected by an obituary. It is proof of a person’s identity and relationships on this earth.
Birth and death certificates state facts, dates and places of birth and death, but nothing personal. They do identify parents’ names, but not children or extended family members’ names. Obituaries are personal and tell a story, a summary of a life lived. They are as much a record as a death certificate but more valuable in a personal sense. In family history research, the absence of an obituary can make it appear as if the person did not exist. A death certificate is proof of a death, an obituary is proof of a life.
When a loved one dies, you will need a death certificate to take care of personal and financial business. But don’t stop there. Take the time to write an obituary and submit it to at least one newspaper. Doing so validates a life. It says the person who died was loved while they lived…that their leaf on the family tree is important and s/he was and is valued and worth remembering. Even if the family member is a crotchety old uncle who nobody felt warmly about, or a quirky cousin you thought was odd, that person is still a member of the family and a link between past, present and future. An obituary can be simple or elaborate, factual in style or beautiful with emotion. A funeral home may help you do this as they see to needs after a death, but it may not, or assistance may simply need to be requested. There are many helpful tools on the internet, but other family members are likely your best resource. Obituaries are not done for the person who died, they are for others to be informed; but they are also for generations to follow.
Be bold if you wish. Write your own obituary and put it with your will. Include a note with the name of the newspaper where it should be published. That will make it easier on your loved ones when you pass.
In writing this, it occurred to me to contact the funeral home that handled both funerals. They did, in fact, have both an obituary and a memorial card for Grandma. They also had a worksheet for her sister’s obituary. I am very impressed with how helpful they were and how organized they are to have found the information so quickly. I am thrilled to have what they supplied.
Don’t forego the simple but important act of ensuring an obituary is written and published. If you’re missing one, check resources – you never know what you will find!