Preserving Your Family History and Heritage with Biographies

The many elements of a person’s life that can be included in a biography.

The biography, or written story of a person’s life, is the most valuable record for preserving a family history and heritage along with the collection of old photographs we have developed previously.  As we are emphasizing, there is an urgency in “doing it now!” before items including documents, photographs, and especially memories are lost forever.  This is the fourth article in the series describing specific activities families can engage in together to pass on the family story to future generations. These can be reviewed on the website . A biography of a person’s life is perhaps the most significant contribution to the preservation of family heritages.

The specific effort here is to develop biographies for family members who are still remembered and for whom items including photographs, scrapbooks, and school annuals are available.  This can be a very rewarding activity with current family members, siblings, cousins, etc. working together to share memories and items about previous generations.

Before we begin there are some questions.  First, how long should a biography be?  They can be from a paragraph to a book. It depends on many factors including availability of information and the details of a person’s life.  The biographies that we have prepared for our family members are generally one or a few pages. The length is less important than the content.  A biography from a paragraph to several pages is appropriate for publishing on Find A Grave along with the collection of old photographs and links to other family members and generations.

Is an obituary a biography?  An obituary is an announcement of a death with related details. A biography is about a life. While obituaries often contain some biographical information they are usually associated with the death. The biographies we are preparing for family members are not to replace traditional obituaries that provide valuable and timely information concerning a death. The biography is the story of living.

An autobiography is one written about one’s own life.  It is definitely something to consider.  While others might know many of the facts about our lives we are the ones who know the “complete story” including values, motivations, opportunities, and influence of others, and the many things that makes a life unique. Autobiographical information in various forms, short or long, is one of the most valuable contributions to the preservation of family heritage. 

There is no absolute format for a biography and they can provide various perspectives of a person’s life. Biographies can contain some “vital statistics” type information (events, dates, places, etc.) that are usually available in public records. A good and interesting biography will include many other things about a person’s life--the things we might remember that made them special. We can use the illustration as a guide for recalling memories and searching for items from the past to develop interesting biographies. 

Following a chronological order beginning with birth gives some organization and structure and the opportunity to follow developments throughout a life.


Birth is the origin and foundation of a biography and is much more than basic facts like parents, date and place.  Additional details can give it more of a cultural and historical perspective. This is illustrated in the following for the author:

Perry Sprawls, Jr. was born March 2, 1934, the first child of Neva Mathis Sprawls and Perry Sprawls, Sr. at home on the Sprawls Farm located on Sprawls Farm Road about four miles from Williston, SC. The delivery was by the local doctor assisted by Aunt Dot, a registered nurse.  It was an early morning birth and afterwards fruitcake and coffee was served.  The given name, Perry, often with no middle name, had been passed down through several generations of the family and later onto future generations. The Sprawls Family originally immigrated from Ireland and England and continued for several generations as farmers in North and South Carolina. Perry was later joined by two siblings, William Richard (Dick) and Emily Ida.

The intent is not to provide a full genealogy, that is another activity, but to provide some context within the family that might be from memories passed along.  The traditional old Baby Books can be a source of some interesting details.

Youth and Growing Up

From birth through public school and living at home in a community is a special period of life.  It is a time of development in many ways that are expressed in activities including school, sports, social, community, special interests, work, and relationships.  It is when one becomes a unique and special individual.  For previous generations, grandparents for example, this can be challenging era to write about. Much of this resides in memories and discussing among generations can be productive.  Old school Yearbooks or Annuals are valuable sources if they can be found along with family scrapbooks.

Young Adult

One of the major transitions in life is “leaving home” after high school and entering the larger community as young adults.  This can include additional education, training, preparation for and beginning a career, military service, expanding social interactions, and forming new family relationships.  This is often an easier period of one’s life to write about because there are more records and documents available and memories among living family members are fresher. 

Family and Career

Many of the personal developments and characteristics from young adulthood carry forward to be fully experienced as maturing adults.  The two most prevalent are new family generations (spouses, children, grandchildren) and careers. Each has its own story to share.

Special Interests, Activities, and Contributions

The things that make many lives special are beyond career and related activities.  They are the things that make a person’s life unique and appreciated by others.  This can include relationships and activities in their communities and especially influences on the lives of others. Most of this must come from memories.  It’s time to get the family together and ask these questions, “What are some of your special memories about Aunt Betty?”  

As an example I will share some of my memories about my Aunt Mary Lou as I have included in her biography.

Mary Lou never married and lived most of her life with one of my other aunts and uncle.  We thought of her as a somewhat frail lady who lived a quiet and almost secluded life. I often made an effort to visit with her, recognizing her need for some social contact and conversations.  It was in these conversations I discovered one of her great interests and efforts, preserving and passing on our Sprawls Family history.  In our conversations it was revealed that she had an extensive collection of old family photographs, including a wedding and large back yard Sunday lunches for extended family and neighbors. Even after a half-century she could identify everyone in the pictures and tell many interesting stories about some. She remembered and passed along the story told by my grandfather, a young boy at the time, about the Union soldiers in the process of burning our family home when it was revealed there was a sick person inside, so they did not burn the home but did burn the farm buildings. They then stole grandfather’s pony!

Now Is The Time!

If families are serious about preserving many important parts of their heritage to pass on to future generations there are actions that must be taken now, before many items and especially memories are lost forever. This is achieved with a combination of four specific activities as we have described.

First, get families together, hopefully multiple generations, talking and remembering about family members who are no longer with us.

Second, find, identify, select, add legends, and digitize old family photographs.  This is where younger generations can get involved with the technology.

Third, become familiar with the Find A Grave program and how to use it to preserve many elements of family heritages, including family relationships, photographs, and biographies.

And now, develop biographies for individual family members that can be posted on Find A Grave for preservation and sharing and passed around within families to enrich knowledge and appreciation of our heritage.

Information on these activities and more are available on the website: