Researching the dead is easy. Contacting the living can be a whole different ball game. There can be many different reasons why you may choose to contact a living relative. These may include:
• Responding to a post on a message board;
• Finding new cousins on the internet through genealogy sites or online people finders;
• Reconnecting with a relative from your younger years;
• Following up on a lead given to you by another cousin;
• Following up on a lead based on your own research.
However you find a new cousin, except for genealogist cousins, the most important thing to remember is that not everyone is thrilled about their family history. In fact some people could care less (a collective ouch is felt by many of us). So make sure to tread softly as you choose how to contact the person and what you will be discussing with them.
I would suggest that you try to contact them in the least intrusive way as possible. Responding to a genealogical query from a researcher is much different than contacting an unknown cousin out of the blue. With the unknown cousin, I would consider writing an e-mail, if the address is available, or mailing a letter. I would call first if that is my only option, if I had an heirloom to give them, or if time were of an essence.
I know that some genealogists don't think twice about calling an unknown cousin. I would hesitate just because some people may find it intrusive to get a call from someone asking or telling them about their family history. I would love it but not every non-genealogist would welcome such a call. If you choose to make a call, try to write out what you will say and be sure to be short, sweet, and concise. Don't overwhelm the person, and be prepared if the person does not want to talk to you. I remember one phone call I made to a distant cousin, who was a genealogist, was met with less than kindness. Later, after we had swapped letters, things changed. But it took a while for her to know me and want to discuss "her" family history research with me.
If you are requesting information from someone, be sure you are specific. Telling a genealogist you want anything and everything to do with Great-Grandma Harris is probably not going to get you much. But asking for her death certificate and obit might get you what you need. When writing a letter or e-mail, I would recommend that you provide the person with some information and then make your request. An example follows:
123 Main St
Beach City, Ca 92399
Dear Mrs. Doe,
My name is Gena Philibert Ortega and I am researching the Martin Chatham family. I have recently discovered that you and are I related to Martin through his son Moses. Your grandmother was Moses' daughter.
I am trying to trace all of Martin's descendants and would like to know more about your grandmother, Ethel Ann Chatham Smith. Do you happen to know where she is buried? Also, would you have an obituary for her that you could provide me a copy? I would be more than willing to reimburse any copying or postage fees.
I would be happy to provide you with information that I have gathered thus far. I am enclosing a pedigree chart for you, detailing you ancestry back to Martin's grandfather.
I look forward to hearing from you
If you are requesting documents or other items, even the person's time to look up something, make sure you offer to reimburse them. Taking time out of their lives to make copies, mail something or get information for you is worth something. The person may decline any money but at least offer it. You may even consider sending something as a thank you based on how much the person has supplied you. A thank you card, or a gift certificate might be much appreciated it. One time, someone thanked me by sending a book of stamps. That is something any genealogist can use!
Also, remember to offer to provide them with copies of your research. Your contact may inspire them to learn more about their family history or bring up questions that they have. Consider sending completed family group sheets or pedigree charts to them so that they can know more about your shared family history. You may also consider putting together a blog, wiki, or web site that updates family members on your findings.
Your communication can go one of two ways. You may make a new friend or you may get the cold shoulder. I, like many genealogists, have had the experience of contacting a relative who either ignored us or made it clear that they did not want to be contacted. In this case, you have to go back to the drawing board. You may need to get the information elsewhere. This may result in extending your research or trying to find another relative that can help you.
However, you decide to contact the living, these contacts can often lead you right where you want to be…finding the dead.