Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day. This day always makes me think about corned beef, green beer and large Irish families. It seems many of the Irish families I grew up with had five or more kids. The parents in those families were amazing people. Those families were so big that after a couple of generations, you likely couldn’t keep track of the cousins and who was the child of who.
Which brings me to today’s topic—the importance of obituaries. As an attorney who has represented genealogists in unknown heirship cases over the years, I can’t tell you how important a well written and complete obituary is. The typical case involves a decedent’s estate where the person’s family is completely or partially unknown. Think reclusive neighbor who you seldom saw and who didn’t speak to anyone. Think the great-grandchild of one of those Irish parents. They die and don’t have a will. What happens next? Frequently, the Public Administrator of Cook County gets involved in administering the estate. The Public Administrator is the public official charged with handling the decedent’s estate for people who have no one else to handle it. They are there to wrap up the affairs of the homeless, the recluse, the person estranged from their family—you get the idea.
So the Public Administrator opens a probate estate, oftentimes not knowing who the decedent’s heirs were. When the genealogy community hears of such a filing, they get to work and endeavor to solve the heirship. How do they do it? Through researching public records—death certificates, marriage licenses, birth certificates, census records, ship logs, citizenship applications and, most importantly, obituaries. Actually, a well written obituary can be the best evidence to prove an heirship. A well written obituary will tell us who the decedent’s parents were, who they were married to, who their children were (both living and dead), what their mother’s maiden name was and who their siblings were, at a minimum. Unlike a death certificate or birth certificate, a well written obituary can give us the entire “lay of the land” as to a person’s family. They are always accepted in court as proof of one’s family.
So, the next time someone in your family dies, if you are in charge of writing the obituary, make sure it is complete. Spend a few dollars (don’t cheap out “Jane Doe died on March 10, 2014. Services have been held”) since someday in the future, some genealogist may be researching the death of a distant relative of yours and that obituary may ultimately benefit your descendants by allowing them to be proven as heirs of that distant relative.