The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m the end of my family line. What do I do with our heirlooms? Carolyn Hax readers give advice.

Carolyn Hax (The Washington Post)
6 min

We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: This isn’t a pity party, just a conundrum. I am the last member of my family. Parents deceased. Brother deceased 50 years ago. I have no children. An ex-wife who, while we are civil, is an ex-wife. One cousin, 2,500 miles away and even more distant than the miles.

I have become the de facto eliminator of my family's life. I have Dad's family Bible dating back to the late 1800s. His World War II scrapbook. His medals. The American flag from his casket and the flag from my brother's casket. Mom's family pictures and items from her childhood and life. My life's history. Do I get an attorney, and even if I could afford one, would he/she have a garage sale or just toss everything? Hell, I could do that.

For anyone reading this (if anyone is) consider, for a moment, the responsibility of being the last one. The last branch of the family tree. The person who has to get rid of your family’s history. It kinda weighs on you. Any suggestions?

— The Last One

The Last One: I work for a state historical society that operates several regional museums and a massive archive of historical objects and photos. Many of those objects — from mundane to grand — are donated from family members just like yourself. Consider donating some of your family items to your state historical society or archive, especially if you have stories about your relatives to go along with the items. If you’re not sure if any of it is “historically relevant,” just ask them.

Other items could be donated to schools, libraries, or local theaters (as learning tools or props). Or join your local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group and offer up some items there to give them new life (you’d be surprised at what some people might want!). Or ask retirement homes in your area for advice, as this is surely a conundrum some of their residents have faced.

And if all that fails, please please please do not overlook the power of simply letting things go. Your family’s history, your love, will exist even after those objects get thrown away or recycled.

I wish you the best.

— Mila

The Last One: As an avid family genealogist, I can make a number of suggestions to you. Firstly, the family Bible: Contact the local or county genealogical or historical society in the area where your father’s family is from and donate the Bible to them. Ask that they scan the family birth, marriage and death entries and post it on their Rootsweb website, to help others who are more distantly related get access to that information. I would even go so far as posting photos what you have on, as millions of other people will be able to make use of this in their own family research. Alternatively, donate the Bible to the nearest LDS Family History Center. The Mormons have a staggering archive of genealogical books and records that are free to anyone to access, and you do not need to be a member of the LDS Church to use their records. Your mother’s family pictures can be donated to the genealogical or historical society from the area where she is from, as well.

For your father and brother’s flags, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars will gladly accept, clean, and reuse your donation. I plan to do this with my father’s own flag as well. What better and more fitting destination?

And for your father’s World War II scrapbook, please consider donating it to the National World War II Museum. It is of significant, contemporaneous historical value.

If you take time to do a little thinking about where these things might best go, and where they can be of interest, you will also feel good about knowing that you have done right by the memory of your family.

— C. R. Czarnecki

The Last One: I understand as I am in a similar position. When my mother died (my Dad had already been dead for 20 years by then) I wasn’t ready to let go of anything. It almost felt like a betrayal to NOT keep all this family stuff. But after a few years of cluttering up my little house and paying for a storage unit, I was ready to let go of most of the stuff. I loved my family and they loved me and letting go of these things doesn’t change that.

So I donated some stuff, sold some stuff and kept a few things. I also made a donation to my Mom’s favorite animal rescue organization to honor my parents (one of their greatest and most profound gifts to me was a deep love and respect for animals) and prepared a will leaving my (very meager) estate to MY favorite animal rescue group. And that “weight” of the responsibility of being the keeper of family history? Not mine to carry, and more “myth” than true burden anyway. And I think the best way I can honor my family is by doing my best to be a good person, a kind person. I think THAT is a legacy they would be proud of.

— Passed It On

The Last One: What a huge responsibility. Kudos to you for taking it so seriously. Even though you are estranged from your cousin, he/she might very much appreciate having a piece of shared family history to pass on. You assume that they are not interested, but a phone call or email would avoid a potentially painful misapprehension.

The National World War II Museum eagerly accepts donations of letters, scrapbooks, medals and other military ephemera, which they exhibit and maintain for scholarly purposes. I would also encourage you to look into local historical societies in the areas were your parents grew up. Even small towns often have them and they treasure items like the ones you have.

I would further suggest that you take the time to write out whatever information you may have on the backs of your mother’s photographs, as that sort of first person information is priceless.

— Anonymous

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.