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My mother died last month and left me with all of the family photos and such. Among the two large boxes are guest comment books, the books that people attending funerals and other rites of passage sign to indicate their presence, and words of condolence.

What historical value do they have to make them worth preserving?

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Don't throw out funeral books! They are an important record of other family members, friends, associates, and neighbors -- what Elizabeth Shown Mills has called the family's FAN Club.

Studying my neighbors' and godparents' families gave me important clues that allowed me to learn more about where my family had lived before I was born. I didn't realize until then that my parents had known those families in other cities before they moved to the town where I was born.

If you really don't want to keep them, contact your local genealogical society, historical society, and local archives to see if you can find a home for them there. By themselves they may not seem to have much value, but taken as a group, and in combination with other historical records, they could be the key to solving countless problems, simply by being a record of different families still being in contact with each other at a particular point in time. I always try to identify all of the bearers at funerals when I get that information from obituaries and funeral notices in newspaper research -- having the funeral books allows you to widen the net significantly.

Some resources:

In addition to being of value for genealogy, this kind of ephemera is valuable for social history research. Baby books were one of the many sources consulted by Jo Paoletti for her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.

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    Attendance at family events and signature/address can also help narrow down unknown dates of death, marriage, residence etc. – bgwiehle May 4 '17 at 11:18
  • @bgwiehle - excellent point! – Bruce James May 8 '17 at 19:32
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My G-Grandmother passed away in 1959.

Last year, I tried reaching out to some distant cousins via postal mail and received no reply.

This year, I tried reaching out again, also including a copy of the page that their Father, Aunt, and Uncle signed from my G-Grandmother's funeral guest book. I heard back right away and have established a nice relationship with them.

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My daughter pointed out a genuine historical use for saving guest books: She noted that the signatures of one relative at my parent's 50th wedding anniversary guest book, and the same relative's signature on my father's funeral guest book, almost looks like two different people. In that case the signature indicates a later drug addiction. In other cases it could establish signs of Parkinson's Disease. The handwriting of Parkinson's patients generally gets smaller and smaller, becoming micrographic, as the disease progresses. For example, comparison to Hitler's autograph have been compared over time to show that he was suffering from Parkinson's.

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I agree with what Jan says about their usefulness, except that I would digitize them by scanning or photographing them, and then I'd throw them away.

Unless your parents were notable people in your community, I doubt if any society or archives would have interest in taking such items.

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    I think this is horrible advice. There could be researchers who are studying particular communities who would find a collection of funeral books to be a goldmine. You can't know who might want them until you ask! – Jan Murphy May 4 '17 at 19:54
  • @Jan: Nowadays donating to a small community collection, if they would even take such items, would likely make them very hard to find in that one localized repository. However, once digitized, you can send the files to others, especially to relatives and the people who signed the book, and even attach the file onto your parents record at Ancestry, FamilySearch, or wherever. Multiple copies of things preserves them and makes them available to others. Physical items are burdomsome to keep, unless they have personal sentimental value. – lkessler May 4 '17 at 22:09
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    I downvoted your answer because of the second sentence. I know at least one county archivist who would be happy if someone offered to donate these materials to her local archive. You and I aren't archivists -- so we can't know what other libraries or archives might want. Isn't it better to ask first instead of assuming no one will want them? Digitizing the materials and donating them to a local society is not an either/or scenario. Why not digitize the materials and then reserve your right to do as you see fit with your own scans as part of the Deed of Gift? – Jan Murphy May 5 '17 at 18:44
  • I have no problem with your downvote, Jan. We all have an opinion. I just feel we can't physically keep everything. I worked in a library for 6 years and was Chair of our society's Archive Committee for 5 so I've seen the stuff that had to be rejected or thrown away. – lkessler May 5 '17 at 18:59
  • And I've seen the flip side where professional genealogists were able to make a case because of items that were rescued from the discard pile at the last minute. – Jan Murphy May 5 '17 at 20:14

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