Beware the Living

Recently I was asked to pull some records at the state archive.  They were not the regular birth, marriage, deaths but rather a manuscript from early 20th century.  Although the records are on the NJ DARM website, and only one set indicates that portions may still be considered unavailable, pretty much the entire set is currently closed.  I pushed a little and convinced the archivist to at least look into the index and see if the surname I was researching appeared.  It did not, but there wasn’t much of an index either.  I knew my client would be disappointed, when you are digging that deep it’s because many other avenues have been exhausted.  The archivist informed me that the reason the records were closed is they are 97 years old, just shy of 100, and technically some of the people mentioned could still be alive.  New Jersey has pretty tough privacy laws when it comes to records; I doubt you will ever see our birth/marriage/death certificates on-line at ancestry.  This can make it a challenge to find some of the more recent generations when conducting research.  Some may question why it is so difficult to find one’s ancestors in the lovely garden state, but I found out first hand sometimes you can encounter a living relative and there can be some implications.

One of my paternal great-grandfathers was born in 1886 and had passed away before I was born.  I had very little to go on with this family and I was a newbie to this family history thing.  After a year or so and having encountered my first brick wall (which still exists after 16 years), I went old school and sent out letters.  I included a letter on pretty stationary, my request for information, a SASE, and a family tree, as I knew it.  This hefty package was sent to about 20 recipients that had the surname in the vicinity of my forebears.  I wasn’t expecting much but I was desperate.  I got a call from one fellow that felt pressured to respond from a local historian he gave me some insight, but clearly he wasn’t really into the whole walk down memory lane.  I received a very nice letter from another woman, not much to share but she was interested and then I received the call.  He introduced himself and told me he had received my family tree and letter and he would be glad to help me the best he could.  Much to my surprise he was the same generation as my great grandfather, and in all honesty I assumed he had passed, and I just hadn’t found the record. My own grandmother (his children’s “peer”) was in her late 80’s.  After I picked up myself off the floor we talked quite a bit.  He was friendly, bright, and I really enjoyed speaking with him.  Towards the end of our call he wanted to ask me a question.  He noted on the family tree that his older brother had died, and asked me what proof I had of his death.  I only had the social security death index, and an obituary, but the name was very unique, and the address was one that he had lived for a while, so I felt fairly confident he had passed away.  I read the obituary, and my newfound cousin, said “yes that was my brother, I just had no idea he had died; you see we had lost contact.”  He explained that every family seems to have one that drifts away from the pack, and that was the case with his brother.  I didn’t know what to say, I really was speechless.  This was something I did for fun, and my activity brought sadness to another person.  I apologized profusely and was so sorry he had to find out in this manner.  He seemed ok, but I just had the feeling that he wished he spoke to his brother one last time.

I wondered how I could have missed the possibility that my relative could be living.  On reviewing my tree I did see I was descended from the first child in every generation, while he was descended from the youngest, and was the youngest of 13.  Throw in longevity that seems to run in my family, and it was not really extraordinary.  While I really didn’t divulge anything extremely sensitive such as a prison record, or a child born out of wedlock, still my research was a bit of a shock for someone else.  Because of this at all costs, I do my best to be conscious of how my findings may impact the living.  Not every footnote belongs on an online family tree.  I’m not saying hide facts, but consider the privacy of the living before you post it for the entire world to see.  If someone gets in touch, then fine be forthright, but in my opinion some things should be kept in that “private” tree.  When dealing with clients, of course disclose everything, but again tread with care.

While my client is very disappointed, the nature of the records in that box would have some personal information that could  be unsettling if one of the children is still alive.  Maybe the state is overly cautious; maybe it is not I guess it’s up to each of us to decide the boundaries.  Just be aware you might be providing some unwanted information that could impact another person.  There is probably a better way to deliver some data than on a piece of paper, stated simply as a fact.

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