I often receive questions about testing items from deceased people. Is that type of testing available, and is it successful?
The answer is some shade of grey depending on several factors.
So, let’s start with no and work our way up!
Today for the normal air-breathing human, testing items for DNA in a commercial lab for genealogical purposes is not yet feasible. In part, this is due to the labor-intensive extraction costs plus the fact that often, when DNA is able to be retrieved, it’s not of sufficient quality to pass the stringent guidelines of the testing companies.
Compounding that issue is one of consent. How does the testing company actually know the item is from someone deceased AND that you have the legal right to request the specified service?
There are other problems too.
How do you know the stamp was really licked by your ancestor or the intended person and not by the person at the post office, or a family member or neighbor? You don’t.
How do you know the DNA retrieved is actually that of your ancestor or intended person and not contaminant DNA from someone else? You don’t.
And yes, I know there are companies that enter our periphery from time to time that advertise the ability to provide this service. So far, I’ve not seen consistent success which is why these companies don’t stay around long. It’s very expensive, for them and for the consumer, just to try. Regardless of the outcome.
The intricate extraction methodology and processing is the same technology used to process forensic samples from crime scenes or to identify unknown deceased people.
Clearly, in some cases, it’s technically possible. However, remember that this type of work requires a special lab, costs in the ballpark of $2000 per sample, or more, and the results often need to be compared in a database environment that accepts partial or degraded results.
My advice – don’t even attempt this now unless you have LOTS of whatever it is from the deceased person and don’t mind sacrificing some of it, along with some big $$, and be prepared to receive no result. I’ve now tried this twice without success.
However, this isn’t the situation with someone recently deceased.
While processing DNA from the recently deceased is not a commercially available service today, it’s sometimes possible.
You need to collect a DNA sample immediately after death using a swab kit. If you’re like me, you always have a DNA kit at home, but you might not be like me or you might not be at home.
You can call FamilyTreeDNA and have them overnight a kit to you or the funeral home, or you can go to the closest pharmacy and purchase an Identigene DNA kit. This brand includes swabs. Ask the mortician to swab the inside of the cheeks of the deceased. (Do NOT send the swabs in the kit to Identigene – you’re only using their swabs in order to send it to FamilyTreeDNA.)
Hopefully, there is no denture adhesive present, as that interferes with DNA processing.
While swabbing is recommended prior to embalming, if embalming has already occurred, ask them to swab anyway. The worst thing that will happen is that it won’t work. It’s worth a try.
I wrote about the process, here.
Clearly, with a swab kit, you’ll need a DNA company that uses swabs to do the processing. That eliminates both Ancestry and 23andMe which use spit kits, leaving as candidates only FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage. Fortunately, you can upload DNA files from one to the other.
Some things fall in-between yes and no, meaning taking a swab of a recently deceased person to process at FamilyTreeDNA and attempting to process an artifact.
For example, blood cards or tissue samples fall into this category. In this case, the challenge will be finding a lab that will accept that item.
FamilyTreeDNA may, but you’ll need to contact them in advance as it’s on a case-by-case basis.
Please keep in mind that all items can be contaminated by handling. To handle, wear sterile gloves and use sterile tweezers. Your goal is to avoid contamination by handling or storage.
We’ll discuss storage and preservation in the next section.
Here’s a list of common candidate items and my comments:
|Hair||Can be contaminated. May not include the follicle which is your best bet for autosomal DNA. While mitochondrial DNA is most typically extracted from hair, using forensic methods, in some cases, autosomal can be extracted as well.|
|Envelopes and stamps||High probability of contamination. Special processing needs to be utilized due to the adhesive which in some cases is animal-based which means it contains animal DNA.|
|Teeth||Should be in good shape and not have cavities, meaning baby teeth are better candidates than extracted teeth. Normally, adult teeth aren’t extracted without a reason. Don’t throw anything away though.|
|Hearing aids||Hearing aids often contain ear wax and skin cells and make good candidates.|
|Glasses nose pads||The nose pad or metal connecting the nose pad to the glasses frame sometimes harbors skin cells.|
|Dentures||Possible candidates although adhesive interferes with DNA as does soaking denture in cleaning solutions.|
|Electric razors||Excellent candidates since residue held in razors generally contains skin cells. However, be sure your relative is the only person who used the razor. Contact the lab for instructions before extracting the contents.|
|Blood cards and tissue samples||Excellent source but the lab needs to be contacted about whether they accept this type of sample and how to send it safely. Blood and tissue samples may be held by a medical facility if the person was hospitalized, received treatment, or a post-mortem was performed.|
|Hats, sweaty items, etc.||Possible candidates but it depends on the item, its age, and condition. Contact the lab with specifics. With hats, check for embedded hairs which may be a better source than the hat itself.|
|Used Kleenex type tissue||If you’re positive that the tissue was used by the target person, this is a great source of DNA.|
|Toothbrush||Sometimes, but bacteria can be an issue. Doesn’t hurt to save a toothbrush after allowing to dry completely|
|Fingernail and toenail clippings||Clippings are a great source of DNA. Be sure to check clippers, as some have little “catchers” built-in. Also check the drawer where clippers are stored, assuming there is only one individual using those clippers.|
|Travel bag||If your relative traveled from time to time, check the bag in their suitcase that held their personal items. You never know what you might find. Mine holds many DNA-rich items and yours probably does too.|
If your relative passed away from something communicable, you need to take that into consideration.
Storage and Preservation Guidelines
While this type of DNA processing service isn’t commercially available as an off-the-shelf service yet today, as technology improves and prices reduce, I feel confident it will be a viable, readily-available service someday. I’ve been saying that for years now, and I just hope someday isn’t too far in the future.
Your challenge is to keep your sample of whatever it is in good condition, so it doesn’t degrade irrecoverably while you are waiting.
- NEVER store items in plastic including ziplocks or baggies. Plastic prevents air circulation and encourages mold.
- NEVER use any type of tape or adhesive.
- DO store each item individually in paper, like an envelope, preferable acid-free paper.
- If you store an item in fabric, DO wash the fabric first to remove dye, stabilizers and dirt as well as DNA residue from other people. Handle the fabric with sterile gloves after washing.
- DON’T store the item against wood and not in a cedar chest. Wood contains tannins which are acids that stain and leach into other items.
- DON’T store the item in the sun, a hot attic or humid basement.
- DO store the item in a safe, dark location in a temperature-controlled area of your home.
- DO label the container the item is stored in.
I have several items from my father and grandfather that I’m keeping with the hope of someday being able to utilize them. I have them stored individually in an acid-free envelope, in a small train case, buffered by acid free tissue paper, with nothing else touching the envelope, in my closet.
I’ve also enclosed a note for my daughter, just in case she finds those one day and wonders what they are and why they are packaged in that manner.
Don’t Throw It Away
Let’s say you’ve already done DNA testing on your parent, then they pass away.
As you go through their things, you see hairbrushes and razors and maybe even find a tissue in a nightgown pocket.
You think about how those items would be good for DNA testing and you’re glad you already did that. That means you don’t need to save those things, right? Wrong!
DON’T throw those items away. They’re treasure. There may be new vendors in the future, new companies that process and utilize DNA. There will assuredly be advances in science and new products, and you may wish you had those DNA sources.
I saved my Mom’s hairbrush and Kleenexes from her bathrobe pocket for this exact reason. She lived alone and no one else would have used those items.
Biological processes accelerate and degrade DNA.
For example, heat.
The heat of modern-day cremations destroys all DNA, even though residual bone fragments are left.
Cold, meaning freezing, would typically preserve DNA, unless a repeated freeze/thaw cycle is involved. In other words, don’t store those teeth in a frost-free refrigerator. I know someone who froze something in an ice cube tray and suffice it to say that a guest received a VERY unexpected surprise one hot summer day. In another instance, a power failure caused everything in a freezer to be thrown away. Freezing is generally not the best choice.
If your ancestor died in a fire, or the home burned but some items were preserved – maybe.
If flooding or water was involved, again, think mold and rapid degradation. Dry those items but without high heat and not in a dryer. If you’re dealing with sewer water, dispose of the items.
The bottom line is this – if there’s enough of an item left to see and identify, other than cremains, there’s enough to preserve, just in case.
Truly, you never know. The best you can do is to begin preservation now and work with what you have.
Staying on the Right Side of the Law
I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that there are required legal procedures to exhume remains for testing. Those laws and procedures vary by location.
Do not try this at home. Contact a lawyer in the jurisdiction where the person you hope to test is buried and be prepared to convince at least five people that your need is pressing and justifiable:
- The lawyer (bring a large check)
- Other family members, ALL of whom will likely be required to sign and notarize their agreement
- A judge who will ultimately decide
- The coroner or other individual to arrange exhumation and take the sample
- A lab to process the sample and if it’s not your DNA testing lab, agreement from your DNA lab to allow your sample to be uploaded
You’ve probably figured out why you never see anyone discussing having exhumed their dearly departed for testing. The hoops are many and the process is exorbitantly complex and expensive. Just moving a grave a mile or so down the road when a cemetery was being permanently flooded, without getting a court order or taking a biological sample cost a friend in excess of $20,000 several years ago.
If you’re seeking the Y DNA or mitochondrial DNA of that ancestor, another family member appropriately descended may be able to serve as a proxy. Work your way up the tree to find test candidates and create a DNA Pedigree Chart.
Males inherit their father’s Y chromosome along with their surname. Everyone received their mother’s mitochondrial DNA, but only females pass it on.
Autosomal DNA, at least in part can sometimes be inferred by matching with other people from the same side through family matching, or conversely, not sharing a match with someone that you know is from either your paternal or maternal side on the same segment.
You can read more about how different kinds of DNA is passed to descendants, here.
Today, testing most artifact items isn’t a viable strategy to retrieve DNA, but there are some notable exceptions. Alternate testing strategies may prove more fruitful
However, taking appropriate measures to preserve these items for future testing is a great strategy. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. You’ll never know if you don’t take those preservation steps today.
The best outcome, of course, is that one day your ancestor’s DNA will be able to assist your genealogy. I can hardly wait!
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We retrieved an ancestry DNA sample that has worked very well, from a deceased relative. I wasn’t hands-on in the process, but it involved a syringe with water, into the mouth. Probably helpful that there had been “nil by mouth” for some sevearl days before.
What is the likelihood of being able to exhume the body & get a DNA sample for someone who died in 1869? She is buried in a small county cemetery in NE Texas. There are a number of descendants in the area. I have no idea what might be left of her body after all this time. Don’t really want to pay $20K for that…
Probably not much left. You’d need to contact a lawyer in the county where the cemetery is.
We had 20 seventeenth century family graves opened with the intention of moving them and also getting DNA; however, there was only dust and a few slivers of bone and/or teeth remaining. We did send them for DNA testing; however, we have not yet gotten the results. I will post back if we get additional information about the results, if any. (BTW, we had archaeologists doing that work.)
That’s cool. Look forward to hearing the results. Thanks.
My 10th great grandfather Joseph Bridger’s (ca. 1631-1686) bones were exhumed by the Smithsonian Institution from the floor of the chancel of a church in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. I have been having male descendants join the Bridges/Bridger/Bridgers Y-DNA Project at FamilyTree DNA to confirm the match of their Y-DNA with that of their ancestor.
Thanks so much for this detailed summary and guidance. Much appreciated!
I have a lock of hair from the 1860’s which I am fairly certain belonged to either my g-g grandfather or his wife, my g-g grandmother. After he died in the Civil War, she kept it with his correspondence. So what I would like to know if testing can just tell me if the hair is from a man or a woman? That would give me the answer I am looking for.
That’s part of the testing protocol. It it’s not separate.
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