How to Write About a Large Family When Someone Dies

Family History Writing Tips

In my workshops explaining A Recipe for Writing Family History, I encourage people to include those left behind when a person dies. The death of your ancestor is important, but their surviving relations are also part of the story of their passing.

One workshop attendee posed a question that many of you might be feeling as you start enumerating the posterity of your deceased relative.

Question: How do I write about a very large family? At the time of my father’s death, he had had three wives and 23 children. How do I write the death story following a recipe for writing family history with so many people?

Identifying 23 children, their spouses, and their children at the time of a patriarch passing seems overwhelming. The path of least resistance is to simply tally how many people survived an ancestor and continue on with the cause of death. However, from a genealogist’s perspective (or a descendant) excluding the names of the survivors can lead to overlooked relationships.

How many times have you wondered if an ancestor had additional children, siblings, or spouses?

How many times have you NOT questioned the existence of other relationships only to discover your great-grandfather had a second wife and additional children?

You are not alone.

I recently discovered a second-wife for a great-grandfather that transformed how I viewed his daughter’s story as a young adult. If someone had written about that second wife, I would have known these additional details about him and the remainder of his family.

So, how do you write about potentially 100 survivors of an ancestor? Just do it. Include which spouse was still alive when a relative dies. Include all the children that were still alive when their parent died (along with their spouse and children). And if there are great-grandchildren, include them as well. State their name, ages, and if possible where they lived.

Imagine a funeral where the attendance numbered 100, and all of that was family! What if those 100+ were in attendance because they were hoping to make bank through the will but the family erupted because some were cut out while others got more. Ohh…. sounds like a compelling story to me. What if those 100 relatives plus 200 friends and neighbors had trouble finding a venue big enough to hold the funeral services? That’s a powerful story. What if the deceased had 100+ surviving relatives, but only two showed up for the funeral. Oh…. I want to know why. Don’t you?

Contrast the large family with a smaller one to see why you should name everyone. Compared a large posterity to an ancestor who only left behind an orphaned child and a neighbor. Was the funeral attendance small because the deceased came from a very small family and the only survivor was the orphan? Or had the family recently moved far from relatives and had not built up a social network? Or, was the deceased not well liked and the only people who’d deign to show up were the orphan and neighbor?

There is power in telling who was alive when a life event happened. Don’t exclude someone because the list of surviving relatives is ‘too long.’ That’s the point. It’s a very long list, and you don’t want to exclude anyone.

Now, if you wondering how to format the list, that’s a different question entirely. But if you’re trying to get out of writing (and researching) every survivor, I would advise you not to. You wouldn’t want someone to exclude you from the death story of a loved one simply because there were too many to name, (BTW, many people think more than one named survivor is too many).

For more writing tips, pick up a copy of A Recipe for Writing Family History, using this link: Order Book.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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