Legend has it, on Halloween the veil between this world and the next is lifted a bit. I for one am hoping that when that happens tomorrow, a few of my ancestors will reveal themselves. (Note to William Dennis—if you could reveal yourself through the 1860 census, that would be awesome.)
So while I’m not a huge fan of “all things gruesome,” I do feel somewhat of a connection with Halloween. I mean, as family historians we’re all about dead people, right? We love cemeteries, obituaries, death and burial records, and really anything death-related. (If by chance you’re not a death record fan, read the next article in this newsletter and you may change your mind.)
Ghost stories? Since our favorite stories are about people who have passed on, I think they qualify. And of course, if you’ve been doing family history for a while, you’ve probably uncovered a skeleton or two in the closet. Sure you can still hand out candy to the kiddies, but here are ways you can celebrate Halloween “family history-style.”
Put Some Flesh on That Skeleton
Today we have online trees and software that make it easy to organize and keep track of names, dates, and places. They form a framework—or skeleton if you will—for our family history. But they’re not the story. The story lies in the details we find in the records.
What was your ancestor’s occupation and what might that work have been like? Census records and directories are good places to learn about their occupations. Take it a step further by researching that occupation online, and in books and periodicals.
Were they active in their church? Look into the history of your ancestor’s church. You may find him or her mentioned in a published history of the religious community.
Were they educated, and could they read and write? Most of us have seen the columns in censuses noting whether an ancestor could read or write, or noting “at school” in the occupational field, but have we ever put that together with their ages? Or how old they are when you first find them listed as employed? In the 1880 U.S. Census, my great-grandmother’s two sisters, aged fifteen and seventeen are employed as coffee packers. Another column in that census revealed that when that enumeration was taken in June, their father had been unemployed for three months of that census year. It’s possible they had to leave school to help supplement the family income.
Were there health issues that impacted the family? By looking into the causes of death, both primary and secondary, we can gain helpful insights into the family life. Often, the attending physician had to note how long the deceased had been in his care. This could indicate whether there was a lengthy illness or whether the death was sudden and unexpected.
Locating Cemeteries and Other Haunts
Genealogists are ahead of the curve when it comes to appreciating cemeteries, but sometimes locating them is half the battle. If you can get your hands on a good local map for the vicinity in which you are searching, you may find some larger cemeteries outlined on the map. In other cases you might have to turn to local resources.
Genealogical societies are a good starting place. Like you, the genealogists in that group are likely cemetery enthusiasts and probably know a lot about graveyards in the area—large and small. They may have even canvassed the cemetery and published an index, abstracts, or transcriptions from the headstones or other cemetery records.
Often a death certificate, obituary, or some other death-related record will include the name of the cemetery where your ancestor is buried. If not, map out the cemeteries that are near where the individual lived.
For those searching in the U.S., the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is a very useful tool . Select the state and county name and “cemetery” from the “Feature Class” drop-down menu, you can see a list of cemeteries for a particular county.
From the list of results, you can click on each cemetery name for more information and to map the location using a number of mapping tools that will give you the exact location of the cemetery.
You can also locate some of your ancestors’ other “haunts” using this tool, including schools, churches, and “populated places.” Maps show streams, rivers, ponds, wooded areas, mountains, valleys, etc. If you have an obscure U.S. town or feature name associated with your ancestor, this is a great place to look.
Communicating with the Dead
Superstitions say that Halloween is a good time to communicate with the deceased. Of course, I do that all the time. Usually the conversation is one-sided with a lot of pleading on my end and silence on their end, but occasionally, I could swear I hear laughing. (Of course, that could be my husband.)
A friend of mine gave me a better idea though. After losing both of her parents, to get through difficult times she had started writing what she called “letters to heaven.” When she was missing them, she would sit down and write them a letter telling them what was going on with the family. She is saving these letters in a folder for her children.
For those of you who are more optimistic about hearing from your ancestors this Halloween, why not prepare a list of questions for those ancestors you’d like to hear from? What would you like to know about them? Likes and dislikes? Exciting adventures? Childhood heroes? Or perhaps how they celebrated Halloween? If they don’t answer, why not sit down and answer them yourself? (Here are some questions to get you started. ) Someone in the future would probably be thrilled to learn those things about you.
Juliana has been writing and editing Ancestry.com newsletters for more than thirteen years. She’s looking forward to meeting some of you at the Pennsylvania Family History Day in Exton, Pennsylvania. To see upcoming events where Ancestry.com will have a presence, click here.