A New FamilySearch Database Causes Me Genealogical Grief and Questioning

Most of you ( perhaps, “both of you” might be more correct) who regularly read my blog know that I am a bit of a goofball. If you happened upon this post via some random search terms, just understand this is so. For me,  like many who use the same mechanism, comedy is a defense.Those of us who are practitioners of the ridiculous find it far easier to be funny than serious. In fact it’s actually better, because most people who pride themselves on being very proper and dramatic make us giggle, and comedy makes them mad…so we win. However, despite my silly exterior, I am a very serious researcher. As such, I normally get all excited when new databases come online.  This was not necessarily the case with a recent addition to FamilySearch: “Ohio, Stark County Coroner’s Records, 1890-2002

Let me preface these thoughts/questions with some information. My father, Terry Lee Staats, who lived in North Canton, was killed in a car crash outside of town on 31 Oct 1971. The more astute among you will realize that was Halloween (it took me years to figure that out). If you are familiar with the area, it was basically at the intersection of Middlebranch and State Roads. My dad was the driver – two were killed, three injured. My dad was one of the killed.  I was only two, so I have no memory of him. I often  thought I did have one “memory,” but it could just as likely been a dream that later turned into a “memory.”

Upon first seeing the database, my thoughts were purely genealogical: “Awesome, I wonder if there is a file for Terry Lee Staats?” So I fired up the browser and looked at what was there. The actual case files only go to 1927, but the index is complete. And there he was, my father, Terry Lee Staats, in the coroner’s index. Was I ready to look at a coroner’s report? Was I ready to learn about what happens in cases of death by auto accident? As I pondered these questions, the thing that kept going through my mind is this: if this file had been about my 3rd great grand uncle, I wouldn’t have even hesitated to order it. I never knew my 3rd great grand uncle. I never knew my father. I never knew any of my clients’ families. So why would it be different? But somehow,  it is. I’m not ready to order this file.

I’ve always thought, or at least assumed, that one of the primary reasons I became interested in genealogy was that I never knew my father. But when it comes time to apply the methodology and thoroughness with my own father that I would use with a “regular” ancestor, I find myself struggling.

I can’t say for sure what the theme of this post even is, but I felt compelled to write it. It made me question some of the things I’ve dredged up about my ancestors, and whether or not I would have done so if I was more closely connected to them. I did an obit look up for a client today, and discovered I was a little uncomfortable using the section title  “Death Notices” in the citation. Is the quest for complete genealogical knowledge really that important? Did it matter that my father (or substitute YOUR ANCESTOR HERE) died by such and such a method, and what the circumstances were surrounding his death, contributing factors, etc?

My answer, after much mulling over, is: yes. Yes, it does matter. The devil is in the details, as they say. Those details will tell the story generalities don’t. And like it or not, it’s the truth, and isn’t that what we’re after as much as anything? (Records don’t lie, right? :)

I guess the important thing is how we as genealogists (and descendants) treat that information. But I’m still not ready to order that case file.

 

"Two Killed Three Hurt Seriously In One-Car Crash," The Evening Independent (Massilon), 1 Nov 1971, p. 1

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9 Responses to A New FamilySearch Database Causes Me Genealogical Grief and Questioning

  1. Chris,

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I feel the same way. Genealogy is really all about ancestors long dead. The rules are completely different for family. Family are people we knew, lived with, loved or tolerated. There is a whole lot of baggage – good and bad – that goes along with the living. There is no way that we can apply the rules of research to family members. When record providers open up recent records we have to stop and ask ourselves if it is really necessary to research family the way we research ancestors. I think the answer is no.

    Marian

  2. Thank you for writing this. In the excitement of researching a story, it’s remarkably easy to forget that we’re emotional, irrational individuals as well as hunters of facts… until we come up against something like this.

    I’ve been sorting through my late father’s personal papers, and there are several pieces of his writing I’ve had to set aside. Not ready to read certain things, like his poetry and his journal. It’s too intimate; it feels like an invasion of his privacy, which is ridiculous on the surface; and it also feels like it’s too risky for me personally. What if I read something that changes my image of him, or of our relationship?

    On a related note, I recently received an email about a journalist who’s looking for someone to interview about a certain reclusive writer with whom I worked when I was just starting out in publishing. The writer in question died some years ago and left no family, and no one could be harmed by telling his stories – yet those few who knew him are reluctant to be interviewed. Why? I think it’s because the man was intensely private in life, and we feel the need to respect that even when he’s long gone. Especially since there would be limited benefit to the world in giving up the details of his personal life to the general public. The journalist has the distance to write the story – but we who knew him are too close to tell it.

    Perhaps there are just some stories that need to go untold – or, at least, must wait for the proper time to be unveiled? For you, it sounds like that report holds a story that fits into one of those categories. Very odd feeling, to come across such a thing, isn’t it?

  3. avatar Susan says:

    Of course the details matter. And of course it is difficult to consider the situation dispassionately. One’s father, regardless of if or how well one knew him, is not abstract. There are several 20th c. events and time periods I have chosen not to examine. I leave that research for someone a generation or two further removed from those involved. Rather like the physician who does not treat her own family.

  4. avatar Greta Koehl says:

    I believe you made the right decision. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal to download a newspaper article on my father’s death in a car accident in 1972. It was a big deal and it shook me up quite a bit – and a newspaper article does not go into the detail that a coroner’s report does.

  5. avatar Sierra Pope says:

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It is also a good reminder to be gentle with families when conducting an interview. While the story might be far enough removed for you, it might be personal to someone else. My grandfather committed suicide a week before my mother’s 11th birthday. My mom is very open when speaking of her father’s death but it is still very difficult for my grandmother to discuss it almost 50 years later.

    I think it is important to document stories of our family members, but the story of your father will not be incomplete if the coroner’s report is not included.

  6. Chris ~ Thank you for sharing this and starting such a great discussion. It’s a reminder that events touch some people more closely than others and as researchers we need to be respectful of that. In this case you are the researcher and the client so to speak and can best judge. I can’t imagine reading that coroners report –

    In my own family I’ve had to be careful around researching my mother’s birth mother. My sister once said she didn’t understand why Mom wasn’t more curious about her own mother. However from thing Mom has said I believe that it’s too hard for her to think about a woman who (at least from my Mom’s perspective) didn’t want her.

  7. avatar Chris Staats says:

    Thank you all for the comments. I will probably write an expanded version when I have a minute. We dropped our oldest son off for college this week, which has taken all of our energy for the week :)

  8. avatar Shelley says:

    Chris, I’m glad you shared this, and sorry to learn about the loss of your father. I think you’ve made the right decision. That file isn’t going anywhere–there’s no need to look at it just because it happened to get indexed online. I know there are records regarding my brother’s death from suicide 19 years ago that I may never be ready to look at. I feel that unless seeing a record would bring me greater peace of mind, I should let it rest, at least for now. There’s a time and a place for everything.

    On a brighter note, congrats on launching your son off to college!

  9. avatar Comeka Earl says:

    Very thought provoking . . . thanks for sharing.

    I do agree that the details do matter even though some of those details are painful or shocking. During my first ‘serious’ look at genealogy while still in my 20s, one of my stated goals was to find a ‘black sheep’ somewhere in my family tree . . . those folks would be the most interesting, after all. Earlier this year, I was taken by surprise by my reaction to the actions of a woman who is many, many generations back, and not even in MY family. It was eye-opening to see how emotional it was to learn sordid deals of my husband’s 3rd Great Grandmother’s life and how protective I felt toward my husband because of it. Who knew such a thing would feel so personal? But I’m still glad I have the information and hope to fill in the gaps to the story eventually . . . hopefully, her actions will be more understandable then.