(Editor’s Note: I asked Margi to write an article on her new business for which she writes personal obituaries for those who have died in the Pittsburgh, PA area. Her explanation of why this is worthy of doing is helpful to anyone who is wondering if delving into a family member’s life to document it for future generations is worth it. It is, as Margi points out.)
About a year ago, I began researching my father’s side of my family, about which I knew very little. A friend had turned me on to ancestry.com and within a few minutes, courtesy of a census search, I knew more about it than I had ever known, jolting me into a obsession with finding out who these people were.
I knew that I had a great-grandfather who had been a butcher in Wilkinsburg, PA. But to dig up census data that showed him living at the turn of the 20th century as the sole support of a household of 15 that included my grandfather, then five, and a widowed son-in-law and his three children -- well, my understanding of all those stories I’d heard of poverty in the family deepened.
I dug more, and found his parents -- my great-great grandparents, German immigrants. I located baptism records for great-aunts and uncles, draft registrations, addresses of homes, even found out who is buried where.
In old phone directories posted online, I discovered clues about my great-grandfather’s butcher business; I was even able to locate the address of his shop.
It’s been a fascinating journey, and I plan to pull all of the bits and pieces together into a cohesive narrative. What will be missing, even though I have much public data, are more personal notes about the relatives I have uncovered.
I won’t know if they had a great sense of humor, or spoke German. Did any of them dream of a college education? Did I have a great-aunt who liked to bake? Who had a happy marriage in which the spouses did everything together? Were any of my turn-of-the-20th-century kin devoutly religious?
Although these details may seem trivial, to many people they are valued parts of their family stories. Preserving them for children and grandchildren seems to have become increasingly important; with the advent of digital technology, our ease of record keeping has increased exponentially since the time of my great-grandparents.
Yet at the root of it, as with any story, is writing. Taking the data, memories and anecdotes of a life and weaving them into a tale that is true to that life is a real test of a writer, and a real joy to the reader. Biographies and autobiographies remain solidly among bestsellers today, and the popularity of such websites as FaceBook, on which people share the details of who they are, is cemented.
As I left the newspaper business this year, it seemed a natural progression for me, then, to wrap my years of writing and interest in life stories together into a new venture. I had often thought that there were more life stories to tell than those that appeared in newspapers as what are called news obituaries, bylined pieces done by staff writers. These are usually stories about people who are prominent in business and the community.
Those of us who aren’t titans of industry or lack the means to be philanthropists don’t warrant that kind of attention; we get a paid classified ad known as a death notice, generally placed by the funeral home. While these are informative, they often are not artfully done, serving mostly to give notice of viewing times.
I also know, from years of talking to readers and watching web traffic, that there’s nothing Pittsburghers love more than reading about other Pittsburghers, and I am sure that is true of other locales. Send a Pittsburgher to Alaska, and she’ll track her hometown news anyway she can. We value our old neighborhoods, our upbringing, and the hard work and shared experiences that bind us, no matter where we are or where we are from.
So, now I have a nascent business venture, PittsburghObituaries.net, that I hope will put my writing and interviewing skills to work to help Pittsburghers tell and honor their families’ life stories. After the stories are written, they will be posted on Pghlives.com and archived.
We among the proletariat can show people everywhere what Pittsburghers are made of: uncommon stuff.
By Margi Shrum
Margi Shrum is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who writes a weekly column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Food & Flavor section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-225-8393.