DNA vampires

This story originally appeared in The New York Times, but it was reprinted in its entirely (albeit without pictures of some of the individuals involved) by the Deseret Morning News the very next day (04/02/07), and the Times is a bit stingier about offering extended online access to its articles than the News. Apparently, there are some "genetic genealogists" who take their craft to a bit of an extreme, at least by normal standards:

"People who realize the potential of DNA," said Katherine Borges, a co-founder of the International Society of Genetic Genealogy, "will go to great lengths to get it."

Unlike paper records, which can be hard to come by and harder to verify, a genetic test can quickly and definitively tell if someone is a relative. But not all potential kin are easily parted from their DNA. Some worry about revealing family secrets. Some fear their sample could be used to pry into other areas of their lives. Some just do not want to be bothered.

Those cases inspire tactics that are turning the once-staid pursuit of genealogy, perhaps second only to gardening among American hobbies, into an extreme sport.

Derrell Teat, 63, a wastewater coordinator, recently found herself staking out a McDonald’s. The man she believed was the last male descendant of her great-great-great grandfather’s brother had refused to give her his DNA. So she decided to get it another way.

"I was going to take his coffee cup out of the garbage can," said Teat, who traveled to the Georgia mountains from Tampa, Fla., with her test kit. "I was willing to do whatever it took."

At one time, she might have been satisfied with a cousin’s census research, which revealed that they had descended from one John B. Hodgins living in South Carolina in 1820. But a DNA test of an Oklahoma Hodgins, who was found through the phone book, confirmed they were related. Now Teat wants to identify all of John B.’s living descendants by July, when she will preside over a Hodgins family reunion.

Alas, cornered in his garage, Teat’s quarry refused to listen to her pitch. Perhaps he thought she was seeking a paternity test. In any case, he did not show at his usual breakfast spot.

"It drives me nuts," Teat said. "Knowing I can get to the bottom of it, if people would just cooperate."

Here’s another one:

DNA may be the essence of life, but it is the fear of impending death that drives the current genetic genealogy frenzy. "If you don’t catch the people before they die," Robards said, "you’re out of luck."

Not necessarily. Susan Meates, a retired business executive, has discovered dozens of cousins because of her campaign to salvage her brother’s DNA in the hours after his death in a car crash.

Meates prevailed on her brother’s former wife to retrieve his clothes from the funeral home and put them in her refrigerator. From North Carolina, she instructed the medical examiner in Maryland to save blood from the autopsy and persuaded the mortician to take a cheek swab.

Some funeral homes now offer post-mortem DNA collection. But Linda Jonas saw no need for professional help when she tugged several hairs from her grandmother’s head as she lay in her casket.

She made sure to get the root.

"Obviously, it’s not going to hurt her," said Jonas, a family historian in McLean, Va. "I had a little Ziploc."

Well, there’s an advantage to not having a viewing at your funeral. Or having your body dumped in an unmarked grave.

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