We do not often reflect upon our family’s history until members of the family, particularly older ones, are nearing the end of life or have recently died. Finding a way to preserve family stories, document and discover history, and connect generations is meaningful for families and can be a healing part of the grief process.

Caregivers, including funeral directors and family clergy, can be great guides for helping families with their ancestry – whether they are attempting to hold onto a dying family member’s lifetime of stories or researching their family’s past to feel connected to those they lost. Caregivers can also support families in discovering who their loved ones were and the history of their family when planning the funeral or afterward. Oftentimes family heirlooms can hold special memories, and families may want those items displayed during the funeral, allowing those objects to tell a story of their loved one who died and their family at the same time.

Here are some helpful sources that can help funeral directors when guiding families:

  • Ancestry websites and companies: Websites and companies such as 23andme and Ancestry.com are designed to create a detailed family tree. The information found can connect people back further than they can imagine. Sometimes, there may be parts of a family’s history that bring shame, just as some may bring hope. Caregivers can be there to listen and comfort when families go through various emotions tied to these discoveries.
  • Family trips to a country or place of origin: Grieving families can unite and feel connected to the past when visiting their family’s country of origin together to learn about who they are. It can also be meaningful to visit the childhood hometown of a loved one who recently passed, particularly if that city has deep family roots.
  • Decades’ old family photos and videos: Encourage families to sort through old photo albums and videos. They may want to use this memorabilia throughout the funeral or at ceremonies. For example, funeral directors and caregivers can advise families to make copies of photos to place in the casket. This way the family can keep the original photo but take comfort in knowing that the memory is close to the deceased as well.
  • Sports, awards, and uniforms: Military uniforms, favorite sports teams, and awards won paint a picture of a person’s passions. Encourage families to spend time learning about what each item meant to a person who died. Ask them if they would like to display any of these items during the funeral, at a memorial, or during another important moment.

Our ancestry tells us who we are at our roots. It tells us where we came from and how resilient we are. The hope found in that history of ups, downs, adventures, and resilience can be a strong foundation for grief but also for the connection felt between family members. Funeral directors, clergy, and other caregivers can be wonderful resources and sources of encouragement to families when digging into a family tree beyond the branches.

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