Swabbing the (Recently) Deceased

Ezekiel EstesMeet Ezekiel Estes, son of Susanna Estes and ?  Ezekiel was born in 1814 in Halifax County, Virginia, and died in 1885, not terribly long after the camera was invented.  That is clearly when this photo was taken, at his death.

His great-grandchildren didn’t know that his father was ?  The family rumor had always been that Susanna, his mother, was apparently married to an Estes cousin, which explained why her surname as a “widow” was the same as her maiden name.  However, a lot of courthouse records research, reading of old depositions that still exist and DNA testing of a descendant proved that indeed, Ezekiel’s father was not an Estes man.

How many of you have a photo like this, or maybe one even better, with the casket showing?  Believe it or not, people made postcards of these kinds of photos.  In the early 1900s, there were photos of children who had died that were dressed and posed with the parents, as if they were still alive.  Can’t make it to the funeral, don’t worry…you get a picture.

But back then, once someone was dead, they were, well, dead forever… gone, except for that one photo.  Today, that’s not quite the case, because one can preserve DNA and part of that person will live forever through the information their DNA provides.  I mean, if we had Ezekiel’s actual DNA, we might be able to figure out who his father was.

So, what do you do if you meant to have Aunt Gladys swab at the family reunion this summer, but she had the bad judgment to pass away at Memorial Day?  Don’t just throw up your hands and show up at the funeral empty handed.  The funeral director is your friend.  They do a fine job of cheek swabbing.

Call Family Tree DNA (on the phone, not e-mail), tell the customer service representative the situation and ask for a kit to be overnighted to either the funeral director or a family member who can be counted on to take it to the funeral director the same day.  The funeral director will swab the cheek of the dearly departed and you will indeed still have the DNA information that Aunt Gladys meant to give you at the reunion.  Indeed, it’s a wonderful last gift and legacy for her to leave for you and the rest of her family and descendants.

Yes, and I know the next question that’s coming.  What about digging up the dead or testing things left behind?  Well, you’ll have to wait for a future article to discuss that in detail.  It’s much easier and infinitely less expensive to get a swab kit to the funeral director, let’s put it that way.  Plus, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get DNA from a cheek swab and attempting to retrieve DNA from personal items later is less than 50% successful, best case, and sometimes much less.  So, enlist the help of the funeral director, call Family Tree DNA or keep a swab kit handy at home at all times!



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22 thoughts on “Swabbing the (Recently) Deceased

  1. Hi Mrs. Estes,

    Do coroner’s take cheek swabs when someone dies in a house fire or any tragedy? I would think that they would to identify the person in a case of tragedy. Could you get one from them also?

    • That I don’t know. I suspect in some cases they do, in order to identify the body – but in that case, I doubt it would be cheek swabs. That kind of DNA processing is outside the realm of genetic genealogy. They process using the CODIS marker set, I believe. If you wanted DNA from someone who died tragically for genealogy purposes, I think you would still need to work with the undertaker and Family Tree DNA, although if the cheek cannot be swabbed, you’ll need to work with Family Tree DNA on alternative collections sites/methods. Anything that falls outside of normal processing is likely in the forensic realm and significantly more expensive because of the different type of processing required.

      • Dear Mrs. Estes,

        Thank you, for the reply. I was not sure if the DNA testing was the same or if they used a different method to get the DNA. I hope I did not upset anyone by the question. If I did, I am, sorry. Just needed to know if I could use that DNA from a male. As always you give us all different ways to help us find our roots.

  2. As gross as your commentary is, it is very valuable and informative and for those of us who have inquiring minds, we thank you. Of course, this is not for the cocktail circuit. Love you as always!

  3. How about a hair sample with root-bulb attatched, or a baby tooth, or a fingernail? Probably all forensic problems, but how long are such samples good? Notr that DNA has been obtained from mummies and the teeth of long-dead creatures.

  4. Roberta,
    It’s so strange- I have a similar problem with my East (Estes- sometimes used interchangeably) line in Halifax. My 2x great grandmother was an East. On her birth record, It lists her mother as an East, father unknown. She was orphaned when young, so no one has any idea if her mother was an East by birth, or that was her maiden name…….One of my brick walls.


    • Kathie,

      Send me what you do have and I’ll check and see if it lines up with anything I have. And to be sure, this is Halifax Co., Va., right? There is also a Halifax Co., NC.


      • Yes- Halifax, Va. I’ve done the FTDNA FF already; awaiting results on 23 and Me. Both tests were taken in hopes of solving 2 brick walls that I have- this being one of them. I will get my sources, dates and names together and send them to you. Thanks!

  5. I had my male cousin do a dna test because my father died in 1991. However I do have a very well worn cloth hat that belonged to my father. The sweat band in this hat has his perspiration on it. Is there any chance that dna could be taken from this?

      • I have eye glasses from my mom and dad that I’ve been wanting to get tested. I figure the area under the nose guard would be a perfect place to collect DNA. However, my mom’s glasses have been around for 32 years and my dad’s for 16 years.

        • Don’t touch them. Put them in to a baggie but don’t seal it. Then put the baggie, unsealed into a paper bag and close the paper bag. I have an upcoming article about forensic DNA.

  6. Is there a different solution for Y-dna vs mtdna kit? I have a few Y-dna kits available and wonder if I can use them to collect mtdna and notify Family Tree of the switch, and, of course, pay the difference?

  7. Fascinating … enjoying the blog. Forwarded this to a friend w/a very recently deceased relative and a family mystery no one wants to talk about. I’m thinking it would be much easier to get this done if you are a child or spouse of the deceased, though, than say, a grandchild or nephew or niece. Or if you’re the one paying for the funeral home’s services! Though the dead don’t have privacy rights, would an heir have legal rights to the deceased’s DNA sample? Food for thought.

    • p.s. certainly wouldn’t want to offend any grieving relatives! Just playing devil’s advocate and thinking this wouldn’t work if “Aunt Gladys” had children or spouse who weren’t keen on the idea. 🙂

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  9. I just found a comment from you on my tree; the follow up led me here… I wish I’d found this article when it was first posted… I used to work in a research library in a historical museum, back when genealogists spent their vacations visiting facilities that held documents to research. We had several archival boxes that held images of dead children. Back then, photography was very expensive, when a child died, desperate parents would pay any price to preserve the image of that child. My only child, my daughter, died two years ago, this month. I was out of state, visiting family, so when she died, no one knew how to contact me. By the time the Medical Examiner called, I was told the body was in a state of decay, and could not be flown here. Before she was cremated, I asked the funeral director to pull some of her hair from the roots, so her DNA would be preserved. I think he put it in a plastic bag, sealed, then put in with her ashes… (I never thought of a DNA swab… I was not thinking clearly…) I gather from your replies that DNA deteriorates in plastic. I suppose I was thinking, at the time, about resurrection…But, a few months ago I wondered if the DNA could be tested. I used to think that I understood how parents, who lost a child, felt… I had no clue of the amount of grief one experiences when you lose a child. Especially, suddenly, and unexpectedly. Thank you for what you shared…

  10. It is interesting that I called Family Tree DNA years after this article was written, after a loved one died and they told me they do not do testing on any deceased person. So either they no longer do this or they need to train their telephone reps better on what they actually do.

    • They do tests on swabs collected on a deceased person either by the family or the funeral home. They don’t do testing on items.

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