The digital afterlife and the genealogist

What happens to our digital selves after our physical selves have died?

I was driving home when I heard Aleks Krotoski presenting this week’s Digital Human (BBC Radio 4, UK only), which covered the topic of death and how we continue to live on digitally after our physical death.

Digital Human on iPlayer (UK only)

This got me thinking about myself and how might my digital self and my digital assets exist and be of use to others, as a web-friendly genealogist.

Firstly, stop here for a moment and back up your genealogy research. Copy it and save it somewhere where another can find it. Also, think about how you’re filing your research – is it as simple as it can possibly be? What happens to your life’s work of research when you’re not around to explain it? Is it trapped behind a password? Is it stuffed in a filing system that would need Bletchley Park and Stephen Fry to unravel?

I’ve not thought about what happens to my website or this blog after my lifetime, but both are an extension of my research, which also sits in filing cabinets, folders and in my Reunion10 software on my Mac.

Genealogy website LostCousins has for many years, had a ‘My beneficiary’ option in your user account – where you can enter the email address of someone who can take over your research when you are no longer able to.

LostCousins 'My Beneficiary' field
LostCousins ‘My Beneficiary’ field

Should your websites, blogs and profiles be deleted like many people/families have Facebook profiles of the dead deleted? Is that the right thing to do? Some of the interviewees on Digital Human felt that making a Facebook profile a memorial was a heartwarming way to keep someone’s memory alive. Others may be upset about the continuation of seeing the profile, photos etc of a dead relative.

As a genealogist, I would want my research, my website and my social media accounts to stay online – as sites like Facebook are a daily account of my life, interests, interactions with friends.

What do you think?

WANTED: Dead Or Alive

Killing off your relatives is a crucial part of your work…. as a genealogist, not as a marauding tyrant.

I’m hoping that aside from in genealogy, that there’s nowhere else where the mark of a successful day is one where you’ve killed off a load of your relatives.

Anyone tracing their family tree is sure to stumbled across at least one elusive relative at some point in their research. That relative will cause them to spend many hours following potential leads and plenty of head scratching and brow creasing before either solving or putting it off until a rainier day.

This is a routine I know well.

Help! My Grandmother was a zombie

William Yarrow and his wife Elizabeth
Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright) seems to have died and been buried more than once.

I’ve recently struggled to kill off a maternal 4x Great Grandmother called Elizabeth Yarrow (née Wright), who appears to have died twice (about 2yrs apart) and been buried – in neighbouring parishes (!). Her death(s) fall right at the start of Death Certification in England and Wales. One of them is even noted as being in London and that her body was carried back on the train.

However, there’s seemingly no death certificate for her (the only one that matched in name turned out to be a baby), and parish records and the gravestone all contradict eachother.

The hidden Grandparents and Uncle

I’m currently struggling to find a my paternal Gtx4 Grandparents John Levitt with Elizabeth (née Skeel), and one of their sons Richard Skeel Levitt, during the 1871 census. I can find the rest of their children, but for some reason in 1871 they vanish.

I have them living in the same parish in all the censuses before and after this particular one. So, did they elude the enumerator? Were they away somewhere? – and if so, why don’t they appear somewhere else?

The surname has many variants but having done some pretty vague searches and very specific ones too, they remain elusive. Richard never married and seems to stick with his parents until their death, after which he goes to live with his other unmarried brother. It’s odd that all three seem to be missing.

The Serial Bride

Mary Watlington (formerly Martin, formerly Crisp, née Tingey)
Mary Watlington (formerly Martin, formerly Crisp, née Tingey)

Okay, to be fair, three marriages is probably nothing compared to some, but Mary Tingey surprised me. Born in 1820, she married to John Crisp in 1846. He died soon after their son was born. Within 4 years she had remarried to widower James Martin (my Gtx3 Grandfather) in 1850 and the following year they started their own family. After 5 children – with seemingly just one surviving (my ancestor) tuberculosis and scarlet fever, and then the tragic train accident that claimed her husband, Mary lived alone as a widow.  I’d hunted for her death for some time, but the searches were unsuccessful.

I hadn’t considered that instead of being buried somewhere out of step with the rest of her family or that she had been recorded for some reason under an earlier name, that she had remarried. One evening I stumbled across the marriage in 1877 with 57yr old widow Mary Martin, formerly Crisp (née Tingey) becoming the second Mrs Matthew Watlington. To add to the confusion, the new surname occasionally appears as Watling.

Check, check, check and then cross-check…. again…

These are just three of several situations where I’ve struggled to solve a puzzle. Whilst I know that checking and cross-checking is absolutely crucial to accurately recording your genealogy, it can be all too easy to accept even documentation and gravestones of the time as being accurate.

I’d like to say that I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way… but I say that every time it happens.

Tombstone Tuesday: James, Elizabeth and Willie Gilbert

This headstone stands in the cemetery in Littleport, Cambridgeshire.

The Gilbert family were and are land owners in the area.

The stone shows that Elizabeth and James died close together – perhaps one of a broken heart?

Willie Gilbert is their young grandson.