Genealogy Volunteerism – Go Ahead, Make My Day

Genealogy volunteerism is picking up momentum across the country. As the number of unclaimed persons (deceased individuals who have been identified but have no apparent next of kin) increases, the volunteer genealogists’ battle cry is heard, “Go Ahead, Make My Day.”

“How,’ you ask, “is genealogy similar to ‘Dirty Harry’ Callahan?” Well, quite simply, there are things you can do to both to make their days. For Dirty Harry, it involves a .44 Magnum, so that’s not recommended; but if you want to make a genealogist’s day, just ask him/her to help you find a friend or family member who is deceased, or with whom you have lost contact. There’s nothing a genealogist likes to do more than solve a mystery.

In fact, these lineage sleuths are gaining quite a reputation for solving a slew of mysteries that have stumped law enforcement and investigative agencies. A recent case in Lake Tahoe involved two reclusive 73-year old twin sisters — Patricia and Joan Miller — who were found dead in their home. When it came time for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s office to notify next of kin, none could be found. In an unorthodox move, the Sheriff’s office released the names of the women to the public, and genealogy volunteerism went into full swing.

The detectives’ media plea was met by an overwhelming response. Hundreds of people across the country stepped up to solve the mystery, and in only a few days, two cousins of the Miller sisters were located. When I read about the sisters, I had no clue that I was just touching the tip of a genealogy volunteerism iceberg. It turns out that scads of genealogists are offering their services on a volunteer basis to law enforcement and the FBI, as well as coroners, medical examiners, other investigative agencies, and even the Army.

One of the most important areas requiring in-depth research is “unclaimed persons” (UP) — a deceased individual who has been identified but has no apparent next of kin to contact. Finding these family members is a time- and labor-intensive job, made more difficult by the fact that funding and subsequent staffing to the related agencies have been frozen or cut due to the U.S. economic doldrums. In response to this dilemma, San Bernardino County, California, took a proactive stance and built an entire website around its unclaimed persons’ database — see — that welcomes lineage researchers to take a stab at finding the next of kin for those individuals listed.

But the cycle continues. As the U.S. economy slides downhill, more bodies go unclaimed (what next of kin wants to be saddled with the high cost of a funeral?), the government cuts funding to the agencies that handle UP, the backlog of dead people escalates, and the call goes out to genealogists to help solve the cases for free.

The irony is that genealogists, like the majority of the U.S. workforce, have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Many of these genealogists rely on freelance projects for additional income, yet they volunteer their time and talents for altruistic endeavors. Either these tireless researchers are candidates for an episode of My Crazy Obsession, or they should be canonized as saints for bringing closure to many families who may have lost contact with a loved one. I prefer the latter.

Regardless of the reason, genealogy volunteerism seems to be picking up momentum across the country. As the number of UP increases, the volunteer genealogists’ battle cry is heard, “Go Ahead, Make My Day.”