Do It Yourself Genealogy: Leaving A Written Legacy

by Pamela Abramson | Jul 5, 2012

Pamela Abramson

Unless we're genealogists (and even then so) we all tend to grow up with only a vague sense of our ancestry. We have memories, yes, but not necessarily a narrative of who we are and how our families lived their lives. But now comes a trend that will make family genealogists (and even those who aren't) rejoice. People of all ages and walks of life--seniors, poets, cooks, photographers, you name it--are telling their stories and leaving behind a written legacy that, in the digital age, may last forever. They are writing their own obituaries, they are penning short family histories, they are taking charge of--and putting into their own words--how they would like to be remembered. None of us live lives as large as Steve Jobs, but I was struck by what he had to say when asked why he was co-writing a book. "I want my children to know who I am," he simply put it.

We all have a story to tell, a legacy to leave and a family, colleagues and friends who would cherish knowing more about us. Today, thanks to a proliferation of do-it-yourself technology, we can self-publish our own books and print them out--one at a time. As part of my writing business ( I help people tell their life stories in various shapes and forms. I write or ghostwrite their books and other written documents. Specifically, I help them craft their own obituaries--what I, and others call, "living obits," another new trend, mostly among seniors interested in their legacy. In that respect, I think of my clients as do-it-yourself genealogists, because telling your stories is one of the best ways of imparting, from one generation to the next, important, rich, family history, stories and details.

Most of my clients tell me that they want to tell their stories for their children. "I want this book to act as sky hooks for a boy growing up," said Gundar King, 88, the former Dean of the business school at Pacific Lutheran University. He wrote his memoir (called "Metamorphoses") for colleagues, friends and family, his grandson in particular. "My idea of a family memoir was built on reflections and recollections that would help my grandson, an insightful young man, adapt to unpredictable changes. The message of my book is that we face changes, we live with them and we can survive. I want little Robert to be proud of his roots and to feel a personal responsibility to continue at least some leadership traditions I have passed on in the book. What I have done here, is not a general autobiography. It is a purposeful document."

Obituaries are also purposeful documents, which is why people, seniors especially, are having theirs written. "You can have the final word on your own life rather than someone else having it," said Joan Tieman, 78, offering her reason for writing a "living obit." She also wrote a short book of pictures and captions of her life. "How you will be remembered, if at all, is up to you," said Ms Tieman, who has friends and family, but no husband or children. "I want people to say, "Look, Joan died.?" Then I want them to remember me fondly."

Writing Your Own Book

It is probably worth singing the praises of the "Print on Demand" (POD) publishers that allow us to print professional-looking books without traditional publishers. Instead of using letterpress or offset printing (where publishers print a round of at least 1,000 copies for it to be economical) POD publishers use high quality digital printers and have figured out a way to process, print, bind and ship books at a relatively low cost per copy. (Price depends on the size and length and quality of the paper) and range anywhere from $6 to $60 a copy, which is still amazingly low for a custom-made book. "Now the tools are available for people to insert their photos, tell their narratives and present their books to family members at holidays and birthdays," said Claire Alcock, the senior product Marketing Manager for Blurb, a leader in the burgeoning field of POD publishing. One of their ads reads: Every story needs a book.

I recommend going online to see what some of these companies have to offer to determine if you can indeed do-it-yourself. In my opinion, the best POD publishers out there are Blurb, Lulu , Applel and CreatEspace. You can also search "Print on Demand" in Google and many more companies will pop up. For inspiration check out Blurb and search for "Biographies and Memoirs," one of the company's fastest growing categories, to see how some people are telling their stories. "So much intimate content is poured into a book like this that the emotion is often tangible," said Claire Alcock, who praised a recent memoir written by a Japanese-American woman from Oakland, Ca. She documented her childhood through the food culture in the neighborhood where she grew up. Blurb

If you can't, or don't want to do-it-yourself, that's where a writer like me comes in to do the interviews, write the stories, scan their pictures and help design their books. (Some of my clients, are very happy not owning computers.) People are also beginning to give life stories and oral histories as gifts to their loved ones. Recently, I was hired by a man to write his mother's story (Music Is A Friend For Life: The Story of Peggy Salkind) for her 85th birthday. Blurb "I had no idea my life made such a good story," said Ms. Salkind, who wasn't convinced until she read her own book. "It's been an unexpected blessing." At the very least, self-publishing a book is a way of archiving memories, moments, milestones so they can be preserved. In an era where photos and messages are posted and tweeted, old pictures are stored in dusty boxes and our jpegs are lost on hard drives, "Memories are ephemeral" said Ms. Alcott of Blurb, "and a book is a lovely frame for the content life produce and something that will last forever.

Writing (or participating in the writing of) Your Own Obituary

I've been writing "living obits" long enough to know that most people think that preparing an obituary in advance (as you would a last will and testament) is morbid. But, I'm here to tell you that most of my clients, who do it as part of their end-of-life planning, are reflecting on their lives and not thinking about their deaths. "It's more about all the things I want people to know about me," said Joan Tieman. "For me, the process was therapeutic, and it gives me great comfort knowing that my obituary is in a file with the rest of my important papers."

Genealogists and others have long used obituaries as a source of important information, specifically dates. But today, the nature of obits are changing. No longer brief, dry, death notices, obits can be smart, tightly woven narratives--and can often be a treasure trove for a genealogist, who can learn the essence of a relative, who happens to also be the source of the document.

Obituaries, are one of the most widely read sections of a newspaper and they are easily archived on the Internet--more good news for genealogists. When you place an obituary in a newspaper, you are given the option for it to appear online. There's a site called Legacy where you can search millions of obituaries from 800 newspapers worldwide going back to the beginning of the last century. Now that's a long-lived legacy, and another reason people are paying attention to the content of their obits.

Resources &References

For those of you interested in working on your written legacy, the Internet is brimming with ideas and resources. Even I was surprised by how many bookstores, community centers and libraries were offering workshops, classes, and seminars on both obituary and memoir writing. And, if you google "family history," "oral history," "obituary writer," "leaving a legacy," chances are you will find a freelance writer like me who would love to help you tell your story. You can always e-mail me with questions. Meanwhile, here are some links I'd like to share with you.

Books: (It's interesting to look inside someone else's story for ideas)

Our Life: The Queenie and Bristol Martin Sr. Family Story

Hicken Family: From New York to California


I Just Died: The Living Video Obit of Art Buchwald

Obit Magazine

Short Stories To Die For: The Art of the Obituary

Tales of an obit-maker


Leaving Your Legacy

The Business of Memory

It's My Funeral and I'll Serve Ice Cream If I want To


Storycorps: Record your story

We Are America: Immigrant Stories

Telling Their Stories


How to Leave A Written Legacy

Legacy: Step by step

Your Life Is Your Story

Telling Your Stories

Great Questions

Write An Autobiography

Step By Step Guide To Oral History

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