Are You up to Date? By Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

My Mom, Patricia (Hanley) Stuart, passed away on 8 January 2008 while I was teaching at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. I remember exactly when I received the call from my sister, Linda. I was eating a hot fudge sundae at JB’s in the Salt Lake Plaza Hotel with a friend while another friend was massaging my neck and shoulders already tight from stress and not enough sleep. Mom always did things on HER own schedule! That night I stayed up ‘til the wee hours of the morning writing Mom’s obituary and a tribute to her.

It got me to thinking. Whether you use paper to record your family history or a software program such as Family Tree Maker, are you up-to-date? I mean, have you entered all recent family data, logged those cute new family additions, added marriages and spouses, checked for your family in the Social Security Death Index, gathered obituaries, funeral cards, and even prepared questions for the next family gathering of any kind?

Hatched, Matched, and Dispatched
My apologies to whoever created that phrase as I am tailoring it. Today, we add other events to the basic three–born, married, and died. Adoptions, step-siblings, foster children, engagements, partnerships, commitment ceremonies, marriage contracts, divorces, burials, cremations, and memorial services are also important family events to be documented. I am always asked how to include things that don’t fit the genealogy software fields; notes and memo sections are great for that. Genealogy software continues to evolve to include more such events and some allow for tailoring of event and relationship labels.

Genealogists, Obituaries, and Tombstones
I enjoyed writing Mom’s obituary and the tribute because, as a genealogist, I wanted to include as much detail as my Dad could afford for the paid obituary. I had tears, but also had some nice memories as I wrote. I wanted to include both birth and death dates, her parents’ names, her high school and graduating year, that her sister had died five years previously on the same date, marriage date, and the names of all children, spouses, grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as her wonderful caretakers. My family added her main doctor’s name. Be sure to have someone else review your writing.

The tombstone is out of my control as far as extra details because it is a military headstone in Fort Snelling National Cemetery due to my Dad’s WWII Army Air Corps service. However, a genealogy friend told me about the tombstone she already ordered for herself, with all the life details to make it a future genealogist’s dream. Have you thought about your own family details for obituaries and tombstones? Many genealogists have already begun their own obituaries. Whenever I see an obituary that mentions the word genealogy or that the person is a member of ABC Genealogy Society, I smile. If you write at least part of the obituary, the word genealogy is more likely to be spelled correctly!

Family Group Sheets
A friend told me it took two years to add her mother’s death date to the genealogy software she uses. I haven’t been able to do that yet. But, what if something happens to you? Who will enter the details for future genealogists? Will they remember Cousin Nancy’s death date and place or will your second cousin’s son who died young be added?

Funeral Guest Books
Have you asked family members to either save these for you or to allow you to make photocopies? On the photocopy, make notes as to who each person is and the family connection if there is one. My grandmother had old funeral cards and programs that gave me some family details. We are also making notes on the sympathy cards so everyone knows if the sender was a relative, friend, or co-worker.

Social Security Death Index
When was the last time you checked the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) for your less-common surnames? Check it for those distant cousins you last corresponded with in 1992 or elderly relatives you have not been in contact with. Check the SSDI each time it is updated. Armed with a date and the place, you can begin a search for an obituary.

Your Holiday Notes
Make time to review the holiday letters, notes on greeting cards, and photos you received from family over the past few months. Middle names, graduations, weddings, births, places of residence, names of colleges, and other details can probably be gleaned. Be sure to add the source of the details you add in case Aunt Dorothy mistyped a date. Even these things need to be verified.

Even If It Is Difficult
As the historians of our families, it is important for us to ferret out the details and add them to our family history. It might be difficult, but wouldn’t our jobs be easier if earlier generations had added such details to their own records. We can set an example for the rest of our family and for future generations.

Pay Attention to Details
If you did read this column fully, you would be able to put together a good picture of my family. Names, dates, places, relationships have been mentioned. You could take these details and do a lot of searching on and other websites. For much of your own family details from a death record or obituary, you might easily find birth dates, siblings, children, marriage dates, divorce dates, cousins, and ancestors. Now go back and review your own family’s 2007 pictures, graduation, birth, and marriage announcements, and holiday letters again. What clues did you miss?

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Paula Stuart-Warren, CG, a Minnesota resident, is a professional genealogist, consultant, writer, and lecturer who is frequently on the road. She coordinates the American Records & Research Course at the annual Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She writes for several periodicals including Ancestry Magazine. Comments and additions to her columns will reach her at <> or via her blog She regrets that she is unable to answer individual genealogical research inquiries due to the volume of requests. From time to time, comments from readers may be quoted in her writings. Your name will not be used, but your place of residence might be listed (e.g., Salina, Kansas).
Appearances by Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  • February 23, 2008, South St. Paul, Minnesota
    Minnesota Genealogical Society Class
    Class: Researching Your American Indian Ancestors
  • April 12, 2008, St. Louis, Missouri
    St. Louis Genealogical Society 38th Annual Family History Conference

10 thoughts on “Are You up to Date? By Paula Stuart-Warren, CG

  1. Paula, we are all sorry for your loss. It takes a great deal of strength of purpose to turn your personal sorrow into help for others who will be (inevitably) in a similar position.
    Thank you.

  2. Paula: As I read your article tonight, I remembered my own Dad’s passing back in 2003. He was a minister for more than 70 years and had written everything down on 3×5 cards regarding who, what, where, when & how–as far as final arrangements were concerned. He had also been in public relations for a number of years while in the ministry, so the info was always kept current. Obviously, this came in very handy.

    Dad had also kept his “resume/vitae” up to date and had been writing his autobiography before he died; so when it came time to write the obit, we had it well in hand. (My sister is also a minister, and my son–Dad’s first born grandson– is a journalist, so we gave the “obit” assignment to him.) Needless to say, I thought we had everything covered. Unfortunately, we learned that certain newspapers would not use our written script, and insisted on the funeral director filling out a form for them to write the obit. After much “discussion,” my son’s version was finally accepted and printed with very little change because he “was in the business,” it had come to them by email from his newspaper, and they learned it was being printed in newspapers around the country. (What a sad commentary to learn that strangers think they know your family the best!)

    Dad was also a genealogist of sorts, but had appointed me the official genealogist of the family. Thus, I have always made sure that our family history is “up to date.”

    Thank you for reminding us that it is never too late to fill in the details that are known by us (and other family members), but never put into “the family record.”

  3. Paula, my sincere sympathy for the loss of your mother. As an Eden Prairie, MN, resident, your mention of Fort Snelling caught my eye (my parents are also buried there). After I read your column this morning, I went first to the “Minneapolis Star Tribune” website and then to that of the “St. Paul Pioneer Press,” where I found your your mother’s obituary. I wanted to see for myself what you had written. It was very nicely done–especially from a genealogist’s point of view. It’s also interesting that you also said that many genealogists have already started writing their own obituaries. I just started mine last week–hoping it will be some time before it is used.

    Again my heartfelt sympathy–it was a very selfless act to write this column with the pain of your mother’s death so fresh.

  4. Maybe it’s because I am a historian that my son’s headstone has more on it than the headstones nearby. My sympathy to you in the death of your mother and the circumstances in which you learned it.
    Roy Howard, Chattanooga

  5. Paula,
    My deepest sympathies to you and your family. Having lost my mother in 1990, I had the hardest time entering her death date into my program. I am praying for you and your family at this time.

  6. Paula, please accept my condolences on your loss. You will “do your mother proud” I’m sure! Thanks for turning your pain into a lesson for all of us.

    A very dear 91-year-old aunt of mine just died — you know what was very painful? Deleting her e-mail address! It felt like I was deleting her.

  7. Paula,
    Thanks for sharing your mother’s passing with us. My own mother also chose her own moment–while I was on the plane between Utah and Hawaii, taking my youngest daughter to college. I had talked to my Dad just before I left.

    It was appropriate that the next article talked about preserving family voices. When my husband died, we forgot that it was his voice on the answering machine, and people who called were taken upback to hear him. I still have that mini-tape, but no machine that plays it.

  8. Pingback: Are You up to Date? By Paula Stuart-Warren, CG | Making a Family Tree

  9. Paula, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know the feeling — it took me several months before I could add my mother’s death date to my Family Tree program a year ago. Worse yet, was removing her address from my address list. That one took much longer. However, when I finally added her death date to my program, I realized that I was really settling her into her own place in our family tree. The worst part has been that she was my most staunch supporter and I can no longer call her up to say, “Guess what I just found out” or to ask for clarification on some family member or event. However, she has actually become the moving force behind me — I need to remember all I can of what she has told me over the years — I am now the senior member of this part of the family as well as the genealogist/historian and I’d better get into writing as many of her memories as I can. Thank you for using your difficult experience to help all of us along the pathway. My heartfelt prayers to you.

  10. Paula: I am sorry for your loss. I also have lost my mother and father so I know how you feel.

    When a cousin did a book on part of my mother’s family some time before I started doing genealogy, I asked “There were 2 more brothers in Mom’s family. Why are they not included?” My aunt who gave the information, replied, “Oh they died young.” One died at 3 months and the other at age 37. Do they not count? Don’t forget to include EVERYONE in your genealogy. They ARE present in mine.

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