Why Do This?

“Some people ask why I search for next of kin for complete strangers. There are layers to that answer that go something like this: My brother Jim. Foster children who have complicated family  ties. Homeless and indigent people. Immigrants. My experience with genealogy and finding family for children in foster care. The desire for a puzzle to solve. The satisfaction when I one is resolved.”


Giving the Living a Choice

photo-1455723576895-6ab1d5abbcb9 by Cheryl Winn-Boujnida Unsplash
I am one case shy of fifty.

That’s forty-nine successful next of kin searches in fourteen months. So it was with some confidence I reached out to a medical examiner whose been in the news to offer help locating next of kin for 100 cases he inherited when two funeral homes closed.

“Thanks for the offer…” he responded. “I have decided not to try and track down relatives as I know from past experience that the cremains were never picked up because there are no next of kin, or the family wants nothing to do with the person.”

I was disappointed. Not that he didn’t want my help. That it seemed like he didn’t think it was worth the effort. It’s his domain. He gets to make the decision. He gets to believe that decedents whose remains are unclaimed are unwanted. That there is nobody in the world that would want to know.

Out of 49 cases, one person was flat-out unhappy about being found. Still, she provided information to locate another relative. There were another two or three where the people were relieved to hear the person had died because of the kind of life they had lived. Not happy they were dead; happy they weren’t still struggling, or still harming others. There was closure that may not otherwise occur when people are untethered from their past.

My experience is that people are surprised. They are moved that someone took the time to find them, five, ten, twenty years later. They feel cared about when someone cared enough to connect them to their kin.

“The last time we spoke with him we tried to get him to come back to Indiana.”

“I’ve always wondered what happened to him. I haven’t seen him since I was four.”

“We’re sorry she was alone at the end.”

“She was kidnapped before I was born.”

“I never thought I would know what happened to him. I am glad he’s resting in peace.”

The nay-saying medical examiner’s point of view is that the living don’t want anything to do with the unclaimed dead. Mine is that they ought to have the choice.

Not One, but Two, Unclaimed Daughters

The next of kin case I helped resolve yesterday involved a woman born in 1905, who died in 1978. I’ve been working on it for several months. Using historic Oregonian newspapers, I was able to locate her siblings, and through one sibling’s obituary, identified her parents. All of them were deceased before this woman had passed. I then turned to find her sibling’s children, but was having no luck. Finding kin on someone who passed away so long along is a process of looking forward and back between generations, trying to find the link that comes forward to the present.

I turned to her father, a missionary, who emigrated from Wales in 1870, first to Canada, and then to the U.S. in 1882. I discovered that my decedent was the eldest daughter of his second wife. He had a first wife and one child before he arrived in the U.S., and several other children with his first wife here in the Pacific Northwest. Using Ancestry family trees, I located another person who was researching the first wife’s line, and messaged her. It turned out, she was also researching next of kin but for the eldest daughter of his first wife, That daughter died in 1958 in the Oregon State Hospital. Her remains were also unclaimed.

That researcher had identified the first names of two children of one of the siblings to the decedent she was researching. I was able to leapfrog off of her work, find a marriage record, and locate that now eighty year old woman living in the SE United States. She is the 1/2 niece to my decedent and the full niece to the woman who died at the mental hospital. It turns out that the missionary from Wales had not one, but two, daughters whose remains have gone unclaimed.

Is That Hat Killing Brain Cells?

If he’s not asleep, this student is doing a close approximation. He looks as he always does, with his hood pulled low over the knit cap he wears to cover the greasy strands of gravy-brown hair. He sits more like amoeba than student, his shoulders hunched, head down, hands limp as old rags. I tell him it’s time to join me in this, our fourth week together.

“Hand me your hat,” I say, after a few moments of silence. His eyes flick up without any other body part moving. Not even his expression changes.

“You have head lice?” I ask.

“No.” Irritation, there. But he flips his hood off and hands the dirty knit cap across the table. I pull it on low, till my own hair shadows my face and shields my eyes. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt up over it, let my bones go slack until I resemble his form.

“You’re funny.” His voice flat and shapeless.

“Do I look like I care much what you think?” I ask without looking at him.

“I look up,” he says, with an edge of irritation.

I adjust my eyes up without moving my head, so they peer at him through streaks of hair.

“You’re funny,” he repeats.

I ignore him.

“I care.” he says louder.

I flip open a file to his transcript where yellow-highlighted Ds and Fs. “It looks like you care.”

“I care.” Assertive. Insistent.

I take off the hood, hand his hat back across the table. He takes it, turns it in his hand.

“How would we know?” I ask as gently as I can.

He meets my eyes tentatively. “I do. It’s just hard.”

“Tell me more about that,” I say. And he begins for the first time to talk about what makes school difficult for him. Fifteen minutes passes too quickly. As we wrap up, I ask, “Have you heard about couples who want to have kids, but can’t.”

He nods.

“You know what they tell those guys? To only wear boxers. No jockeys.”

“Uh-huh.” he says, which really means, ‘I’m not following.’

“Too much heat,” I say, “affects the cells’ ability to work right.”

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know.” I say. “I read it someplace. But it’s an interesting question, don’t you think?”

* * *

He seeks me out five days later to ask if we can talk. He’s wearing his knit cap, but the hood to his sweatshirt hangs loosely at his back. His face is visible.

“I went to the doctor,” he said, “and told him I think I’m depressed. And he gave me these papers. Can you help me?”

* * * *

Where does that go in the research, in the grant application, in the hopper of numbers that quantify and validate what teachers, coaches, and mentors do?

I’m reading Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle and trip over a line that reminds me about the importance of informal mentors. She writes:

“I do not think that it is naive to think that it is the tiny, particular acts of love and joy which are going to swing the balance…”

Holding the Good

Photo by Matthew Wiebe Unsplash

After six months of searching for next of kin, I felt like giving up on the case of a man who died in 2014. Something about his story kept me going even though I hadn’t found any of his relatives except a wife who died in the early nineties.

Maybe it was the seventeen felonies by the time he was forty. Maybe it was the two guys that held him down while he was stabbed on a friend’s sofa. It may have been the four times shortly before he died that he was hauled to jail for riding the bus without paying a fare, only to be tossed back out on the street after they booked him because they really didn’t want a man who needed a detox center in jail. More likely, it was that the sum of everything I found told me that people had been giving up on him for years (seemingly for good reasons) and that he’d probably given up on them, and himself, decades before he died.

Yesterday, the kindness of one civil servant led me to an adult stepchild who had not seen the deceased man in many years. That person was able to provide the name of two siblings. Those names led me to an obituary of the decedent’s parents and 13 siblings, some of whom are still alive. Today, the stepchild emailed and asked if I would be sure to let his family know that there is a family photo album if they would like it. There is always somebody out there who holds the good and decent parts of your life, even when everything seems lost.

Find A Grave

I’ve been working intermittently for several months to locate next of kin for Russell Coyne, an elderly man whose family tree I’ve filled in pretty completely, but whose life (and next of kin) remains obscured. I have records on him until the 1940s, and a bit in the 1990s, but almost nothing in between. His uncle is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego. I wondered if other family members were buried there. That’s where Find A Grave comes in.

You can check to see if a deceased person is already listed on FindaGrave. If he or she is and there is no photo of the gravestone, you can post a request for someone who lives locally to take a photo of the stone and upload it to the site. If they are not listed, you can create a listing with the person’s name, dates of birth and death and any other identifying information, and then request a photo. In my request, I gave the names of his parents, asking for photos of those if they were in the same cemetery. I posted my request yesterday afternoon. Today I received an email that my request had been fulfilled.

Isn’t it amazing that there are people who walk cemeteries and catalog every grave, and others who respond to requests within 24 hours? Findagrave member Linda has added 11,960 memorial pages, and added 8,247 photographs. How many hours of walking, photographing, and computer uploading does that equate to?

In comparison, I’ve responded to a few dozen requests in my area. It can be challenging to locate old stones in small rural cemeteries. But each time someone responds to one of my requests, it reaffirms the value of responding when there is a request in my area. It’s been a long time since I’ve filled any requests. I think I’ll watch more closely for requests near me.

Are you a walker? Do you enjoy history? Check out Find A Grave and see what you think. Maybe you can put your 10,000 steps a day to good use.

Online Connections

I’m working on a next of kin case for a 36 year old immigrant who died in 2001. At the time, the medical examiners were unable to locate next of kin. They posted the case on Claim Us hoping family or friends would see him there and contact the medical examiner.

When I started working on this case, I contacted the police, the former employer, the hotel, and the housing department asking for information. None of them have records from 15 years ago.The police department could provide a case number without any additional information because they destroy their files after five years. I asked for ideas on my Facebook page. My friend Nancy saw the post and emailed a relative, who emailed a Vietnamese friend, who emailed the director of the Vietnamese Friendship Association, who forwarded the email to the Vietnamese American Community of Seattle & Sno-King Counties, a grassroots group of community members that organize around cultural and political events, and the president of that organization recommended a woman who might be able to help, and the whole string of forwarded emails came back to me last night. Today I wrote to the contact that I’ve been provided: “Mr. Thang Van Pham died in a hotel in Everett, Washington in December 2001. The medical examiners tried to find his family but could not locate them. Now it has been many years and the police and the hotel no longer have any records and cannot help. I wonder if the Vietnamese community may have online websites, newspaper, or churches in Washington where we could spread the word to see if anyone knew Mr. Thang Van Pham or his brother.”

Maybe social media will help find the family for this young man.

Sorry to Send this Strange Message…

Yesterday I sent one of my I know this is strange to get on Facebook private messages inquiring if a woman was related to a decedent. Her Facebook name was different than the one I’d been searching for so I gave her the name the medical examiner gave as well as the name I believed to be her maiden name. I try to give as little information as possible but enough for the individual to know it’s not a prank message. I ask for their phone or email so that I can give the contact information to the medical examiner and they can make the call. But I also give my email and phone in case they are worried about giving out their information without knowing who I am.

She wrote back last night and gave me her phone number. It was about 11pm. She asked me to call in the morning. “No bad news. Not tonight,” she wrote.

I had a voicemail from her when I awoke. She was crying. “Miss Deb,” she said in a soft southern drawl, “this is about my brother, isn’t it?”

33 Years Later, Family is Found

On October 16, 1982, President Ronald Reagan made a radio address about the nation’s economy. Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” made #7 on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. In the heartland of America, a 29 year old man was struck by a train and died. The medical examiners were able to identify him and locate his former wife who stated that his mother was deceased. She provided the first name of his possible sister but the sister was never located. Today, almost exactly 33 years after his death, I located his sister’s contact information and dialed the phone. Her husband answered and said that she had died last year, always wondering what had happened to her little brother.

Too Little, Too Late

I’ve been working on a case for several months that has been a real puzzle. I couldn’t find any record of the person prior to the late 70s although they were born in the late 40s. I spoke with a couple friends who said there was no family–and that the decedent always said they had been kidnapped as a child, had run away to escape, and ended up in the community where they died. I was skeptical. Yesterday I finally figured out the person’s original birth name and was able to piece together a family tree. When I spoke with the sibling today they said yes, that was their sibling, but they had not grown up together because the decedent had been kidnapped before the sibling was born. Life–stranger than fiction.

And my follow-up conversation with the PD in that jurisdiction:

Police Department: We wouldn’t have a record from 1955.
Me: So, that means you resolved the kidnapping case?
Police Department: No. It means that policies change and we don’t keep reports that long.
Me: So, you may not have resolved the kidnapping. You may have just discarded the case even though the victims were never located?
Police: I have no way to know whether it was resolved or not. We purge reports after seven years, except some homicides.
Me: But for unsolved kidnappings?
Police: We wouldn’t have anything on it.