23    Dec 20090 comments

Finding Family: The personal touch

Merry Christmas
Happy Chanukah

The holiday season is here.

Much of the world will celebrate Christmas on December 25, or January 7 (Russian Orthodox). African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa from December 26-January 1, and Chanukah - the Jewish Festival of Lights - was celebrated December 11-18.

If you are "Seinfeld" fan, you'll remember Frank Costanza's holiday of Festivus ("for the rest of us") today (December 23); its symbol is a plain aluminum pole.

Regardless of what holiday you celebrate, this is when many people think about the new year ahead and make resolutions about how they plan to do better or become healthier.

Others see holiday family gatherings as the perfect time to finally begin researching their family history and they plan to ask questions and record information at the holiday. as they gather to celebrate.

One important component of this quest is finding where our ancestors are buried. Death records can provide many details and can often be found at either the cemetery office or at the funeral home that handled the burial.

I knew a relative had died in Springfield, Massachusetts and located the cemetery. If I had lived in the area, I would have visited the cemetery, but we were in Nevada at the time - too far for a weekend drive. I called the cemetery office, told them about our relative his date of death and asked them to see what they might have in their files from the 1950s.

That's when I learned so much more about my great-grandfather's cousin. Not only was the family well known, but the cousin had built the cemetery, the home for the aging, the synagogue, in addition to residential housing. A friendly woman pulled the 1950s file and copied as much as she could for me, including the obituary from the local paper. That in itself was a major breakthrough, as it provided the names and cities of many relatives and his daughters' married names.

Today, a simple Google search returns some 4.4 million hits for a "genealogy" search. The results include both free and subscription sites, family sites and pages, genealogical social networking sites - like MyHeritage.com - as well as hundreds of genealogy blogs of every possible description.

Where would we researchers be without the Internet, which makes it so easy and quick to find information, to share that information and collaborate with people around the world who are searching for the same families and towns of origin? Various databases can also help us find those important death records, pointing to the proper cemeteries and funeral homes.

Bernard Stoecklein is president and CEO of a company (CMS Mid-Atlantic, Inc.) which provides financial, marketing and consulting services to cemeteries in New York and New Jersey. Those cemeteries frequently receive calls from for-profit companies compiling genealogical information to sell on the Internet.

Stoecklein says some companies contact a cemetery to request information about dozens of plot owners at one time, which may be labor-intensive and time-consuming for a small office.

He reports, in a company press release, that they never allow a company's request to interfere with service to families. The cemeteries and memorial parks are built on the principle of 'people helping people.' Those individuals at the cemeteries help people plan for burial needs, and assist the survivors. Over the years, these individuals establish relationships with the families and provide services afterwards.

When a for-profit company contacts a CMS property for genealogical information, reports Stocklein, the cemetery charges a fee for staff time to do the research. However, they do not charge a family member when he or she requests information about an ancestor's grave or burial.

While some cemeteries have computerized their files, many cemeteries are still working with handwritten or typed files and folders. When requests come in, staffers pull the files, which could be many decades-old and share non-confidential information with the family members.

Something to remember is the reason why a person decides to select a grave marker of some kind (either a traditional stone or a modern plaque). According to Stocklein, it is to provide an opportunity for future generations to learn about their family.

The cemeteries, by sharing public information with descendants, are helping to fulfill the wishes of the deceased person.

Stocklein shared a story in the press release that bears repeating:

In November, a woman was researching her family for a health history family tree. She visited a cemetery in Union, New Jersey, where she knew 12 maternal relatives were buried or interred.
She visited the cemetery office, and a family service counselor gave her maps of the memorial park and mausoleum, directed her to her ancestors' resting places, and provided her copies of the property's file cards, with information on the plot, lot and mausoleum numbers for her family members.

"The personal touch is invaluable," said Mr. Stoecklein. "As keepers of families' memories, we are privileged to share the information we have on file with their loved ones."

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