When we’re growing up, we always seem to be in a hurry for the next step in life. We can’t wait for the next milestone. We’re itching to get out of the house and be on our own. The sweet taste of freedom is hard to resist.
Then once we do step out on our own and away from the safety net of the family unit, we get busy with the general activities of life… and all of the problems and responsibilities that come with it. These dreams and emotions are completely normal. But in all of this rushing forward, we sometimes forget to look back. We sometimes forget about where we’ve come from. And we easily lose track of the value of those who have come before us.
Frequently it’s only when a parent is suffering from an illness or has already passed away that we start thinking about all of the stories that will disappear when they are gone. Traditionally, the majority of thought and effort is put into estate planning, the family trust or other monetary bequest. Financial advisors stand ready to help with the planning of a Wealth Transfer Plan. But what about the those life stories and significant memories of a life well lived? Are they more important than gifts in wills? Recent evidence suggests that baby boomers value family history over inheritance.
For those that have departed, we wonder what nuggets of wisdom are gone and forgotten. And we simply wish that we’d thought of preserving that knowledge ahead of time.
Maybe your story isn’t quite like this. After all, we are all very different people with different upbringings and different influences. However, no matter where you are in life right now, your past has played a crucial role in the person you’ve become today.
Facing mortality is never easy, whether it’s our own or that of someone we love. The good news is that it may not be too late to capture those stories and leave a lasting legacy for your family. You can record your family’s history before your parent passes away or before their memory is no longer what it used to be. And if they have already passed on, you can look to other older family members or friends who may be able to recount your family’s history.
In the coming pages, you’ll learn what you can do today towards leaving life legacies of your family’s past.
Let’s get started!
Create a Family Tree
“The most important thing in the world is family and love.”
American basketball player, head coach at University of California at Los Angeles
Creating a family tree can be easier than you think. Many templates are available online to get you started. Of course, no two family trees are alike. So a traditional family tree template may only take you so far. With second marriages, step families, and all sorts of different family arrangements these days, the branches on your family tree are sure to take on a look of their own. You may need to make adjustments as you go or just create your own from scratch.
What You Know
First start with what you know, including your own information. Check to see if any relatives may have started a family tree already. If so, you can use that as a starting point. Fill in as much as you can on your own, and then enlist your parent or another relative to help fill in any missing information. In addition to family members’ names, here are some things you may want to include:
- Birth Dates
- Birth Places
- Death Dates
- Places of Death
- Marriage Dates
- City, State of Weddings
- Divorce Dates
You can get as basic or as detailed as you want. Some more modern family trees are taking record keeping a step further to include more in-depth information:
- Notations of any lost pregnancies/stillborn children
- Health Information
- Cause of Death
The process of constructing a family tree with your parent or older relative can qualify as time well spent together. Your loved one will have the opportunity to reminisce about family members who have already passed on—especially family members that you may know little about. This project will become an amazing road of discovery for both of you.
Check Your Resources
When you have exhausted all opportunities to find more from those you know, you can begin the remainder of your discovery process by using local, regional, and national resources:
- Local historical societies
- Family history centers
- Genealogical societies
- Census records
- Courthouse records
- NGS Book Loan Collection
- Genealogy websites
Add photos to bring your family tree to life. When faces can be matched with names, stories become more meaningful.
Once your family tree is complete, make copies for any surviving family members to keep on hand. They’ll appreciate your thoughtful efforts, and they will have an eternal gift to pass to future descendants. Then be sure to store a master copy in a safe place, such as a bank safe deposit box.
Craft a Video or Audio Recording
“No legacy is as rich as honesty.”
Your family history may be your most important family legacy. It can be heartbreaking when a loved one passes on. You not only lose this person who was an important part of your life, but you also lose all of the stories and history that they held deep inside of them. Those stories and lessons can hold exponential value, and they can represent the legacy that most people want to leave after they die.
The good news is that you can capture your parent’s or loved one’s stories, experiences, and life lessons before they are lost forever. It doesn’t take years or even months of time. And it doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars. A good video or audio recording can be done in one or a few weekends for a small budget.
You can prepare and create beautiful audio or video documentary accounts to give to family and friends as gifts that will live on and be appreciated for many generations. More importantly, your loved one will have the opportunity to impart to family members their life stories, knowledge, and wisdom for all to benefit. They can leave this earth peacefully knowing that they have left a personal legacy behind in an audio or video recording that allows them to tell their story in their own voice, in their own words, and using their own expressions.
Why Record a Legacy?
There are many reasons to create a family legacy audio or video recording:
- Bring life to your family tree
- Celebrate a loved one’s life
- Match names and stories with those old family photos
- Preserve important family history, stories, and memories
- Gain insight into the struggles, choices, and forces that shaped your loved one’s life, which shaped the life of the family
- Share the person’s experiences, wisdom, and life lessons
- Connect generations
- Create a spiritual legacy
- Record events that affected your family
- Give back to the family
- Create a gift from one generation to the next
Video and audio recordings are sure to be a treasured resource as well as a source of comfort to surviving family members and other descendants for many years to come. Simply hearing a loved one’s voice after they are gone can provide incredible solace and healing to someone who is hurting and grieving over a loss.
A Voice from the Past
Imagine sharing your audio or video recording at your next family holiday or gathering. These memoirs can serve as a powerful tool to help you and your family members recall older loved ones or those who have already passed away. To see what they looked like… to hear what they sounded like… the impact of an audio or visual experience can be both emotional and wonderful.
While talking to family members and friends during your family tree research, plan to record your conversations (with their permission, of course.) You can get started with a simple phone recorder, video camera or a tape recorder.
Before your conversation, prepare a list of interview questions. Here are just a few sample questions you may want to ask:
- What do you remember from your childhood?
- How did your parents relate to each other, to you, and to others in your household/family or community?
- How was your relationship with your siblings, cousins or neighborhood kids?
- Describe some pivotal moments in your life.
- What life lessons would you like to leave?
- How has your faith in God influenced your life?
- Can you recall any historical moments and how they affected you and your family at the time?
- What have you learned about love and relationships?
- Describe any holiday gatherings or traditions.
Of course, the list of questions can be endless. So you will need to pinpoint what you would like to learn from each person. Consider not only what might be of value to you but also what might be of value to others. These inquiries may be the same for each person you speak with or they may differ from one person to the next.
Motivation speaker, Brendon Burchard faced the task of interviewing his father, knowing that his time was short. His list of questions for Interviewing Your Loved Ones is a great place to start.
Expect the Unexpected
Even with the best planning, you’re bound to have some surprises along the way. You may discover things about your family that you never knew. Or your parent may start telling a long-forgotten story.
Expect that some family members may have more vivid memories and others may seem a little fuzzy on the details. And different family members, other children, and friends may have slightly different versions of the same event. That’s ok. We all remember things differently. And we all assign a different level of importance to events in our lives.
Be a Good Listener
The most important key to the process of creating an audio or video recording is to be a good listener. That bears repeating: be a good listener.
If you are focused on the next question or if you’re worried about your interviewee getting off-topic, you may miss a valuable gem of information. The best advice is to ask the question, then (to put it bluntly) shut up. Let the other person talk. And when they’ve finished talking ask your next question. Better yet, perhaps their answer inspires a new question to add to your list. By all means, add that question and ask it—whether you ask the person you are speaking with or save that question for someone else.
Your interviewee’s answers may prompt still more questions:
- Where did that happen?
- Who was present?
- Who may have pictures?
Once you have all of your recordings complete, take the time to compile them in one place. You may want to combine the video recordings into one longer piece. You may want to keep your audio recordings as strictly audio, or you can add the audio tracks to a video tape and supplement the audio with photos as stories are told.
Be sure to save your work in more than one format and keep it in different places. You may want to keep a copy on your computer, and then back it up on a second hard drive or on a flash drive. You may also want to keep a digital copy in a safe deposit box and make copies for other family members to save.
As with anything else, when you leave a legacy you can keep it simple or you can add music, graphics, transitions, and more features to create visual interest throughout your video or audio production. It’s also important to break your video or audio into 13–15 minute segments, as televisions programs often do. No matter how interesting the speaker or topic may be, the human brain will need an occasional break to process and re-energize before listening to the next segment.
Write or Transcribe Family Life Stories
“My mother always told me that as you go through life, no matter what you do, or how you do it, you leave a little footprint, and that's your legacy.”
American politician and author
In the digital age, video and audio are often preferred, but they can never completely replace the power of the written word. You won’t need a device to read a written account. And a written book can be proudly displayed for all to see.
If your parent is still alive and willing and able to write, they may enjoy the opportunity to compose their own story in their own words, and in the way they wish it to be told—without interpretation or outside influences. Your parent may be able to take advantage of local writer groups to help them articulate their memories into crafted narratives with lasting value. At a minimum, a short Legacy Letter can allow them to let others know how they feel about them after their gone.
The Finished Product
Before you get started, you’ll want to determine what format you want your written documentation to take. Is a written narrative more your style with photos interspersed throughout the text? Or would you like to create a more visual representation in the form of a scrapbook with photos and memorabilia?
Then you’ll need to think about organization. Would you like a printed and bound hard cover or soft cover book as a family keepsake? Or should you produce a less formal document, perhaps a photocopied booklet that is stapled or spiral bound? You could even create a family history in digest format, perhaps in the form of a serial family newsletter. The choice is yours, and may depend on purpose, time, schedule, budget or preference. Whatever you decide, be sure it’s a project scale that you can finish, and not something that will sit unfinished and nag at you for years to come.
What’s Your Timeframe?
Are you in a rush? Or can you take your time? Do you have two weeks or two years?
What’s the likelihood of finishing the project once you’ve started? If you need help staying on task, you might enlist a buddy to keep you on track. Just be sure to keep up your end of the bargain and carry the weight of the project.
Some writers find more success by breaking larger projects into smaller tasks. You may find it helpful to create a project “map” in order to determine each step and how much time you want to allot to each step. Then be sure to include time to organize and revise your work as you go—while your interviews are still fresh in your mind.
Beyond interviewing, asking questions, and recording answers, you may want to add further perspective to your written family legacy by researching local and social history during the times your parent is recalling. What was it like to live in that era? What were the challenges, hopes, fears, etc.? Read through town and city histories to learn about life during your parent’s younger years. Research times of war, natural disasters, and epidemics to learn how they may have affected your parent or other family members. Read up on the fashions, trends, art, transportation, and other common ideals during that time period.
Another way to add perspective is to enlist other points of view surrounding the same event. Talk to other family members and/or friends to see what they remember.
Create a Timeline
One of the best ways to organize your research is to create a timeline. Perhaps group stories by decade or by school age (e.g., elementary school, middle school, high school, college) or by stages of life (e.g., childhood, teen, young adult, middle age). By selecting your organizational structure, you’ll be able to sort and group stories accordingly. Some other ways to sort stories can be according to geography (if your family moved a lot), by the subject of the story or by the storyteller.
Any public record or personal, first-hand accounts of events can provide amazing detail and perspective that you may not get from a simple retelling of a story. Plus the writing is already done for you!
Here are some examples of public and personal records to add to your family legacy:
- Diary entries
- Will excerpts
- Military records
- Other records
- Pedigree charts
- Newspaper stories
Make It Personal
You’ll want your family legacy journey to appear to be more than just research. That’s why the real story is in the details. And that’s what will mean the most to you and your readers (next generation) in the long run. Your family members will most likely enjoy the everyday details of your parent’s life: stories, anecdotes, embarrassing moments, crazy happenings, family traditions, and more. It can also be interesting to record various points of view about the same event.
Make a Family Time Capsule
“That is your legacy on this Earth when you leave this Earth: how many hearts you touched.”
American actress, author, daughter of President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan
If writing, recording, and videotaping don’t fall within your comfort zone, you may be willing to try an idea that’s just a little bit outside of the box. Preserving your family’s legacy can truly be a group activity. Creating a family time capsule can be a fun way to preserve artifacts and keepsakes that are important to your family. And it can be a great way to get others involved in the process—both young and old – and create a legacy gift.
Rather than dividing possessions and heirlooms immediately, you can create a time capsule for you or your descendants to open in the distant future. Your living parent may be interested in taking on this task on their own−to leave a gift for the family; that way, you get to be surprised, too. Or you can partner with your parent to collect essential items for the time capsule.
Here are a few ideas of items you can collect for your time capsule:
- Family letter
- Photos (labeled with pertinent information and descriptions)
- Family tree or other genealogical information
- Questionnaire answered by each current family member
- Locks of hair, bagged and labeled
- School records
- Special items not being used
- Dried flowers or pressed leaves from a special plant
- List of current trends
- Family recipes (individual or bound in a book-type format)
- What family members think the future will be like
- Greeting cards
- Small articles of clothing
- Business cards
- Printed screenshot of your social media profiles
- Travel itineraries
The decision-making process can be fun. Need a few more ideas? Simply do an online search for ‘family time capsules,’ and you’ll find a plethora of information. The list can be truly endless, and it will be different for each family. What will you put in your time capsule?
It’s important to note a few items that may not preserve well:
- Delicate clothing
- Technology items that may not be viewable, for example, when your time capsule is opened
Keep It Above Ground
Although tradition might call for burying your time capsule, it’s really more of a romantic notion to do so. In all practicality, your time capsule may not be truly water tight and can end up being a soggy mess by the time you return to it. Instead, securely pack and seal your time capsule in an archival box. Avoid using paperclips or staples in case they rust with age. Then leave your time capsule in a cool, dark place for a future unveiling. You may also want to add one or more packets of silica gel (found in new shoe boxes or other shipments) to absorb moisture.
You could also create several time capsules that include mementos for multiple relatives or family members not even born yet to discover. Decide when you want to have the time capsule opened: 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, 100 years or more. You should also include instructions for handling the time capsule (who will be responsible for it and where it will be kept). Even if you are the person keeping the time capsule, you’ll want to ensure its proper care should you not be around for the unveiling date.
Mark the container, "Do not open until…" Then mark your calendar and get ready to blow the dust off for the unveiling.
Create a Memorial
“Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth.”
Israeli politician, sixth Prime Minister of Israel
One of the best ways to memorialize your parent after they pass away is to keep them alive in your daily thoughts. This includes talking about them. Many people avoid talking about a loved one after they are gone for fear that it will add to the pain that someone else may be feeling. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Talking about a loved one can be one of the best ways to fully mourn a person, and at the same time you’re keeping their memory alive.
Beyond words, philanthropy is often a traditional means of legacy building. Choosing to preserve the legacy of your parent or loved one is a beautiful way to honor them. There are a variety of actions that you can take to memorialize your parent after they are gone. And every option is as unique as the family or individual.
The following are some additional ideas for legacies that enable you to memorialize your parent:
Volunteer or Make a Donation
Was your parent a big supporter of a particular cause or charity? You can take the time to volunteer for that organization and dedicate your volunteer hours in the memory of your parent. You can choose to dedicate your time a few hours a week, each month or just once a year. No matter how much time you choose to give, your parent will surely appreciate your effort.
You can also consider making a donation to that charity in your parent’s name. It could be a one-time gift of any amount or a continuous annual gift to one or multiple charities. Any nonprofit organization will be grateful for the donation and happy to put your gift to good work in the community. The donation amount doesn’t have to be large because every little bit truly does count. Your donation can make a real difference for a cause your parent cared about.
Plant a Tree or Add a Landscape Feature
Did your parent have a favorite flower, tree or bush? You can plant one in your yard in their memory. Or you can take it a step further and see if your town will allow you to plant and care for a tree, small garden, pond or other landscape feature in their name. You could have a memorial plaque added to the site to honor your parent.
Dedicate a Park Bench
Communities are constantly looking for ways to improve their public spaces. Is there a nearby park, greenway or trail under construction? Perhaps your parent had a favorite public place to visit. Contact your local leaders or civic groups to determine the feasibility of dedicating a park bench, statue or some other structure or artwork in their honor.
Collect Family Recipes
Food is often the thing that brings people together—especially at family gatherings. And special recipes can transcend generations.
Was your parent the traditional cook on these occasions? If so, they probably have a collection of family recipes, which would be treasured by the surviving members of your family. If your parent is still alive, take the time to transcribe all important family recipes to be passed on. If your parent has already passed on, record what you know. Then seek out other family members who may also be familiar with the family recipes.
Once you have collected all of the recipes, decide how you want to preserve them. You can photocopy the recipes and give them to family members who wish to have them. Or you can create a soft cover, hardbound or spiral bound version as more of a permanent record. If you’ve created a family time capsule, don’t forget to place a copy there, too.
Create a Scavenger Hunt
A family scavenger hunt can be a fun way for the whole family to memorialize your parent. You can hide their favorite things around the house and property and create clues to discover the next hidden object. Or you could create a scavenger hunt with clues to all of their favorite places in town.
Write a Song
Perhaps someone in your family has some musical talent. How great would it be to honor your loved one with a song? Perhaps just the lyrics or a musical arrangement are enough, or you can do both. You may be able to find a local recording studio to help you produce a small CD to gift to family members. Either way, the process of writing and creating can be very cathartic and healing for those involved as well as for those who hear the final product.
Create a Memorial Website
Advances in technology are constantly making way for new ideas and new traditions. The permanency of the Internet now allows the opportunity to create a website as a memorial to your parent. You’ll have to pay for the domain and web hosting each year, but it can be a beautiful way to display photos and other information about your loved one in a single, accessible place for any family member to view at any time of day or night. In addition, a website can be easily updated with newly discovered information.
Start a Charity Event or Fund a Scholarship
Perhaps your parent was a staunch supporter of their alma mater or of education in general. Leaving a charitable gift can be a great way to help your parent leave a life legacy. You can start a charity event to support an institution of learning or another charity that was close to their heart. Or you can fund an annual scholarship for someone looking to pursue the same career or interests that were a passion for your parent. The scholarship can be geared toward someone in financial need, someone with a similar background or other criteria. Or, you can simply choose a registered charity from this comprehensive list.
However you choose to memorialize your parent or loved one, the simple act of creating a memorial can do wonders in healing your heart and helping you to move on. And it is a loving step to leave a charitable legacy of your parent or parents, for a future generation.
How will you memorialize your parent or loved one? The possibilities for legacies are endless! We can help at Lastly.com. Visit us to learn how we can help you document the life story of a loved one so that they will forever be remembered and cherished by future generations.