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Collecting DNA samples at death

We’ve all seen cases where this has happened.

Where we knew DNA testing was something that we wanted to do.

But where somehow it was treated as something that could always be done.

DNA testing was something that could always be done.

Down the road. Someday. When there was time.

And then, suddenly, there was no more time.

The issue was first raised to The Legal Genealogist in 2013 when reader Pat Rand brought it up. And we reviewed then how to go about collecting DNA samples at death and getting them tested for genealogical purposes, as well as the law to review in case a funeral director balked.1

And the issue just came up again this week — but with an unfortunate twist. A customer service representative at a major DNA testing company got it wrong, and said it couldn’t be done.

Yes, it can. Family Tree DNA will accept DNA swabs collected after death, attempt to extract a DNA sample from the swab and analyze it for genealogical research. Other DNA testing companies require a saliva sample, so this is the big option when time runs out.

So let’s review how to proceed.

First, remember that you’re going to have to buy a test. You may not need (or have time to get) a test kit from the company, but you will have to pay for the testing. So go ahead and contact the company and get the test ordered.

Second, you need to get the supplies to get a DNA sample. If time allows, get Family Tree DNA’s test kit shipped to you overnight. Using the swabs they provide and the collection system they use will give you the very best chance of obtaining a useful sample.

Cotton swabsAlternatively, if time doesn’t allow, for any reason, try to pick up a testing kit from a local drug store or pharmacy, making sure it’s one of the kits that uses swabs. (For example, don’t buy a 23andMe test kit even if you can find one at the drug store. It’s a saliva kit.)

Yet another alternative is to ask the funeral home handling arrangements if they’ve done this before and have a kit or sample system on hand. Some these days are providing this service.

And if all else fails, what you absolutely have to have is a pair of q-tips and a paper bag. The q-tips to use as swabs and the paper bag for storage — and it’s important that it be paper, not plastic. More on that in a minute.

Third, you need to collect the sample. This is nothing more than rubbing one swab firmly on the inside of each cheek for about 60 seconds. Doing one swab on each side rather than two on one side gives you the best chance of getting a useful sample.

If this is something you’re uncomfortable doing, ask the funeral director to do it for you. And seriously, it isn’t a major thing here. Bennett Greenspan, president of Family Tree DNA, advises that all that’s needed is to use the swab or a q-tip and scrape inside the cheek of the deceased.

If the funeral home balks because its staff isn’t clear on the law, print out that 2013 post on the legal issues and bring it with you. In general, if you have the legal right to be making the arrangements for disposition of the remains, you have the legal right to collect that DNA sample.2

Fourth, get the sample ready to send to the lab. If you’ve had time to get the DNA test kit, follow its directions for putting the swabs in the tubes. If you’ve had to use a stop-gap like a q-tip, Greenspan says it’s still a simple matter to handle the swabs after the samples are taken: “Just let the swabs air dry, place in a paper bag, not plastic, and mail to us.”

Finally, when you do send the sample in, make sure you tell the company it’s a post-mortem sample because the lab has special handling procedures in place in these cases.

Of course, we all want to get testing done at a time and under circumstances when it’s fun and a joy to everyone involved. A word to the wise, of course, is: get testing done now.

But in those cases where time runs out, don’t hesitate to go ahead … with, at a minimum, a few q-tips and a paper bag.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “DNA: life after death,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 June 2013 ( : accessed 28 Jan 2018).
  2. Ibid.
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