Reversing Gears: How To Find Living Relatives

by Martin Fischer | Dec 23, 2009

Martin Fischer

Building your family tree begins with yourself and your parents, and progresses generation-by-generation into the past. At some point every family history researcher, novice or experienced, hits a roadblock in that process. When that occurs, one of the best things to do is to temporarily step away from the usual research effort, take pleasure in what you have accomplished so far, and look at the information in a new way.

This detour provides an opportunity to reverse the traditional genealogy research process: Instead of pursuing the past, seek the present. Instead of identifying forebears, look for previously unknown living relatives. Instead of concentrating on your direct ancestors, start searching for those ancestors' siblings' descendants.

Some of the same tools of the trade that facilitate traditional genealogy research can assist in the pursuit of your living distant cousins. Use these resources in a step-by-step process to build a chain of evidence to link these one-time strangers to your family tree.

Death Notices

Newspaper obituaries and death notices usually include several kinds of information that may help with your search: names of the deceased's children and grandchildren, place of burial, church or synagogue membership, professional or volunteer group affiliations. Official certificates of death often list place of burial and name a "witness" or "contact" who may be an adult child of the deceased.

Keep in mind when the person's death happened. If they died late in the 19th century or early in the 20th century, their children and grandchildren listed in the obituary as survivors are now likely deceased themselves. Look for their obituaries and then try to find their living survivors or descendants. Call, write or e-mail the cemeteries, funeral homes and monument companies for more information. The cemetery may be able to provide the name of the person who purchased the burial plot and should be able to identify the monument company. The funeral home may have the names of living descendants. The monument company may have a record of who paid for the grave marker.

Case in point: For years I have been reading old St. Louis Jewish newspapers that are available on microfilm. In an 1886 edition of the St. Louis Jewish Free Press I found a brief obituary on one of my great-great-grandfathers. It listed three surviving children who I knew were living in St. Louis at the time of his death and another who I erroneously thought had stayed in Germany. Because the obit gave her married name, I was able to use funeral home, monument company and synagogue records to trace her line to two living brothers who are my third cousins. (See table below.)

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Census Records

The U.S. census offers a wealth of information about nuclear families by listing parents and children living together at their home addresses. The 1930 census can provide names of children who may still be alive. When the 1940 census becomes available digitally in 2012, it will contain more people who are still living who were children when the census was taken. Older censuses may provide the first link in a chain of evidence leading to living relatives.

The Lost Cousins web site offers a database in which you can list your ancestral information from the 1880 U.S. census or the 1881 British and Canadian censuses. When someone else lists the same individuals as you, then Lost Cousins puts you in contact with each other.

Churches and Synagogues

Religious institutions of all kinds maintain membership lists. They publish monthly or weekly newsletters or bulletins that may help you find your relatives. Sometimes these bulletins--which may list names of members who have made donations and publicize such events as engagements, weddings, confirmations and bar and bat mitzvahs--can be found online. A phone call to the church or synagogue administrator or office secretary can be very productive. They may tell you how to contact the person you are seeking. If not, they may be willing to contact them for you and relay your contact information and query to them.

Jewish Records

In addition to the above, synagogues also maintain yahrtzeit lists on the anniversary of members' relatives' deaths. A few weeks before the anniversary of a death, living family members receive a notice from the synagogue reminding them that their deceased parent or grandparent will be mentioned at a coming Sabbath service.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, maintains an online database of pages of testimony about Holocaust victims. Pages of testimony are forms that were completed by survivors, living relatives, friends, colleagues and other associates of people who were killed in the Shoah. They attest to what information was last known about the victims. If the person who completed a page of testimony was a relative of the deceased, then their relationship is usually specified. The living relative's home address at the time the forms were filled out is often included.

Case in point: Early in 2003, before Yad Vashem had posted their online database of pages of testimony, I wrote them asking for any information about my wife's Landmann family cousins from Romania who were believed to have died in the Holocaust. The pages of testimony they sent included the name and address of a distant cousin still living in Israel who had completed the forms for Yad Vashem. Our daughter happened to be studying in Israel at the time and was able to meet her. We still correspond.

JewishGen is a comprehensive web site for Jewish genealogy researchers. It includes a Family Finder database and a family tree database that can be used to contact other people who are researching the same families as you.

Other Online Sources

Your search for obituaries can be assisted on several different free web sites. Recent obits are available on where you can search by the deceased's name or by newspaper. Older obits and death notices can be found through the Google News Archives site. The ProQuest historical newspaper databases are available at public and university libraries. Also, the Library of Congress has a free searchable online database of hundreds of newspapers from 1880 through 1922.

Several online telephone and address directories may provide you with the final set of data you will need to contact your newly discovered distant cousins. Some directories are limited to the United States, such as, while others, such as, have contact information for people living in foreign countries.

Cases in point: My wife knew that one of her great-grandmothers had a sister who had married a man named Kamin in Pennsylvania. Using an online phone directory, she found a cluster of Kamins living in the Pittsburgh area, and we were able to establish contact with several of them by sending letters by snail mail. Similarly, I knew that I had some distant cousins with the unusual name of Lubansky who had immigrated to Australia. I found several of them listed in an online phone directory for Australia and sent them snail-mail letters. I now regularly correspond by e-mail with my third cousin who is their family historian.

Once you know your new relatives' names, social networking sites such as and professional networking sites such as can help you contact them through their messaging tools.

Case in point: Years ago I had obtained family tree information from a couple of my elderly distant cousins in the Duke family who live in various Southern states, but they had stopped responding to my letters. This branch of my family all had very common names, so online address directory searches were unproductive because there were way too many people with the same names. By using Facebook's "find friends" option, I was able to track down several younger family members and messaged them through Facebook.

Making First Contact

When you decide to reach out to your new distant cousins--whether you contact them by phone, e-mail or snail mail--be prepared for any questions they may have. They may be suspicious of your motives. Fears of identity theft and other scams are very common. Genealogy does not interest or appeal to everyone. Maintain a positive attitude while you alleviate their concerns.

In your first communication with them explain why you are contacting them, who you are, how you found them, and how you are related to them. This is where your documented chain of evidence linking you to them is crucial for building your credibility. Share your family tree, relevant family photos and interesting family anecdotes.

Ask them to share their family history with you. If they seem to be uninterested or uninvolved in family history, ask for the names and contact information of others in their family who might be more interested in genealogy. Most likely someone in their family will be as enthusiastic about your discovering them as you are.

After achieving success in your pursuit of previously unknown living relatives, you can return refreshed and rejuvenated to the traditional genealogical hunt for ancestors. Explore the new online tools that may have become available in the meantime. And when you again feel the need to take a break from the usual pursuit of the past, just reverse gears again into the present.

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