Pleasant Yet Firm Are IMPORTANT in Genealogy

Why are pleasantries a genealogical tool? Because that saying “start as you mean to go on” is serious business. Being polite, grateful and pleasant at the beginning of a transaction almost always yields a good result.

Recently, I went into a cemetery’s office with four markers to photograph. One of the memorials that I sought (let’s call it “A”) had been attempted by another Find-a-Grave volunteer who couldn’t locate it due to a wrong last name in the request. While I was there, I chatted up the clerk. We had a laugh. We talked about the history of the area (not my native land), the age of the cemetery (not my area of expertise), a few of my more outlandish-yet-true discoveries in recent genealogical research, the strange behavior of 2012’s squirrel crop, and the names I had taken in with me.

Because we had a giggle first, she felt familiar enough with me and my quest for “A” to treat it as her own. She went through card catalogs and maps in three different offices. She was thorough, putting in special effort to find data and location about “A”. She found that there was a marker in the place missed previously, but that only the dates, and not the first and middle names on it, matched the request in my hand. I looked at the seeker’s full name, the decedent’s name, and together the clerk and I found that the last name on the memorial wasn’t “wrong” at all. It was the decedent’s and seeker’s shared maiden name. Someone had mixed up first names in the seeker’s family, and the decedent’s married name was not used on the memorial, but the memorial I sought was the one so carefully located by the clerk. Her dedication and respect for the dead, and so, my quest, enabled me to get the photo I needed for one of those requesting strangers.

When we moved on to married couple “CD,” she indicated their location on a map. Then, she looked up the names of those around “CD”and provided them so that I would know I was in the right neighborhood. She explained to me how the crypt I sought was structured and drew me a diagram. I found “CD” in less than 5 minutes because, again, the clerk who knew everything was willing to share that knowledge because she knew I appreciated her labors.

Another name on my sheet, “B”, was hard to find despite her map (thank you, heat, humidity and stumbling), but just as I moved toward departure I found a married couple’s shared memorial in the area the clerk indicated. This couple’s lives were lived between similar dates as “B,” and they shared “B”‘s last name. I shot their memorial and uploaded it to the seeker, explaining the situation and promising another try at “B.” I didn’t find the right stone yesterday, but I might have found one belonging to family members not anticipated or even known by the seeker. That kind of serendipitous “added value” is great! So often, it leads to family tree discoveries that researchers and seekers wouldn’t have found otherwise. And as for the original request…Scarlett O’Hara was right when she said that tomorrow is another day.

Once I uploaded the day’s photos to Find-a-Grave and filled in the extra information I found, I sought a few ancestors of my own. I learned something and I taught something: I learned that this particular line had its own family cemetery, and that the stones were moved to another cemetery some time ago. In turn, I taught the Find-a-Grave volunteer handling the old family plot that my ancestor who died at 1862’s Battle of Shiloh was NOT killed in New Jersey, and that he spelled his name with an E (not an I). It may sound picky, but this is what we do. We deal in facts. I gave her my gratitude for her dedication, managing a virtual adaptation of  a defunct Illinois graveyard from California, and she thanked me for the correction.

On another front, I was casting about for any information available in a big family mystery. After I had exhausted museums, libraries, clerks’ offices and more in three states, I started making phone calls to businesses at which I thought my ancestor might have worked, businesses which might know some history of the era in question.

I reached a woman in an office in Midland, Texas. I told her my story, and the kind of information I was seeking. She was nice, but hesitant. When I told her a bit about this particular ancestor’s story, so opened up like a flower. We chatted for half an hour, and at the end of that phone call, she took my information and said she’d pass it around among older folk in her industry. She thought that word of mouth might shake something loose about a fading memory.

Did she have to do ANY of that? Absolutely not. But she did it because I approached her in the right way and involved her in my adventure.

Do things like that matter? YES. All of them. Because, just as most people are incredibly generous and helpful, some people enjoy being difficult.

I had a very unpleasant encounter with a Find-a-Grave volunteer just the other day. This person had found and photographed, and even researched, some key family in my father’s line. I was very grateful for this work. I wrote about the experience and I thanked this volunteer by name, in a blog post. I sent a link to the post along with my repeated thanks to the volunteer who, in turn, wrote me nasty, passive-aggressive and childish messages and left a completely inapporporiate message on my ancestor’s actual virtual grave. It was a desecration amd I reported it to Find-a-Grave.

Why the furor? One photograph.

I had not dealt with other peoples’ photos on Find-a-Grave before, and I did not realize that every headstone photo is required by the site’s rule to be credited to the photographer. Find-a-Grave is a wonderful site, but its help, rules, and regulations sections are not easy to find or read. I had unwittingly violated copyright.

As soon as I learned of this, I rectified my error and apologized. But, and this is key, I was honest. I let the volunteer know that the messages left were rude, excessive, disrespectful and inappropriate despite my gratitude for the work done; that I was open to teaching rather than rudeness; and that there were better ways for this person to have contacted me, better language to use, and a more constructive teaching tone to take.

As a former secretary and administrative assistant, I know that staff and volunteers can be terrific help if respected. They can also become giant brick walls when treated poorly. Sadly, some are simply rude, bound and determined to be unpleasant and unhelpful. Banter, chat, conversation, pleases, thank-yous and jokes are incredibly helpful tools to researchers, be they amateur or professional. They may thaw the unwilling, and they will warm up everyone else. If you prectice courtesy when making requests and are treated badly, at least you know that you did your best.