Let’s Talk About Death

Family Historians and genealogists should be ever mindful of what happens to all their hard work and accumulated books and files when they depart this life, for good. Some recent deaths and illnesses of family and friends reminded me the best time to prepare is long before we think we need to.


A few years back I looked at my massive book collection and decided if I read a book every few days I did not have time to read everything I had. So I decided to edit my collection and reduced it by nearly a half. Suddenly I had a place to put things! And it was easier to organize and find things. But recently I was looking at my books and wanted an easy way for my family to evaluate the book collection at my demise or incapacitation. So I ordered some removable colored stickers and have placed a sticker inside each book. Family can grab what interests them. Then to help in dispersal:

  • Pink = donate, sell or otherwise dispose
  • Orange = donate to local Genealogy Society Library
  • Yellow = family significant books or needs further evaluation
  • Green = first editions, rare books and of monetary value

In the process of going through each book I ended up with 2 grocery sacks of books that have been donated to the library. The process has taken a few days but I am quite satisfied with the ease and simplicity of the process. For very valuable books I have slipped a printout of current sales price or note inside. What could be a huge future burden, eliminated!

It’s been a couple of weeks and I went looking for a book of Haiku found it and sat down to read it. It’s worth maybe $15-40 on Ebay. However when reading through it I realized I did not much like most of the translations and in reading the essay in the back I discovered I liked the literal translations much better than the westernized version. So I thought to myself why keep a book that does not please me. Let it be found by someone else who might treasure it — so off it went to the library to be donated. Better to have fewer books that delight , than those that annoy or weigh you down. And don’t forget this comes from a lifelong book-lover.


Every genealogist should face the fact that unless someone in the family has shown “true” interest in your collection, it may end up in the rubbish if you do not make other arrangements in advance. There are many options but whatever you choose to do put it in writing. What organization or individual gets what. Here are some possibilities:

  • Donate to a local genealogical or historical society
  • Donate to a surname specific organization
  • Donate to a geographic specific genealogical or historical association
  • Donate to a major genealogical repository
  • Digitize and dump any non-original documents, photos etc. now
  • Donate digital copies to appropriate organizations
  • Convert genealogies into stories and consider making them into books
  • Locate relatives that would be delighted to receive part of your collection

Whatever you decide, please check in advance to see if the individual or organization is interested in your entire or parts of your collection. Many books that use to have more value but have since been digitized have less value to collectors than the used to. Use a broad based search engine like Bookfinder.com to get an idea of your book’s value.


At this juncture in time most kids don’t want our stuff and if they are interested in heirlooms it’s likely to be a short list. Here’s a novel idea, ask them what they want. Have them wander around your abode and have them make a list of what they want. If you do not have children or grandchildren ask and friends or cousins with whom you choose to share. Once you have those lists you can set out your decisions based on their desires. There’s no sense giving Bobby the painting you love, but he didn’t ask for, when Mary did. Make informed choices For small objects you can use the same color coding I used above but with a person’s name on a yellow sticker. Pink is no particular value—can be donated. Orange could have where to donate and green suggests the check out the value. If you are super organized you could take photos of objects along with notes on its provenance, value, appraisal etc. Yes this is a lot of work but it does not need to be done all at once. I am in my 6th decade—if I give myself a couple of years I should be able to get this done. During the process I can weed out things no one wants and donate them myself or sell them. Possibilities include Craig’s List, Ebay, consignment or garage sale.

Below is a 4 liter “Really Useful Box” which is 14 5/8″ x 10 1/4″ x 3 3/8″ and I find particularly helpful. This one contains keepsakes from my grandparents. Others I have designated for children or grandchildren. This one contains a Swedish Bible given to Roy by his grandmother and grandfather upon his confirmation in 1905. A beaded evening purse of Helen’s, an engraved calling card tray, jewelry etc. I like that you can see what is inside and that they stack nicely and are easily loaded into the car (as we did more than once during the fires). Use whatever system works for you.

As I work through the process myself I may have additions to this blog post or another follow-up piece. I started writing this piece and before I published mine my friend Paul Chiddick’s posted this excellent one. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Paul recommends Planning a Future for Your Family’s Past by Marian Burk Wood. And there are lots of books out there like Get it Together designed to help you plan your estate.

Kelly Wheaton ©2022 All Rights Reserved.

1 Comments on “Let’s Talk About Death”

  1. I have been working on this as well. I do need to edit my shelves. I currently bought some archival boxes and sheets etc. I need to get tissue paper now for them.

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