A Chilly Morning in Queens


I went to New York to see the sights but came home with a testimony of family history.

In September 2000, I was on my first trip to New York City. My plans included all of the typical tourist activities a young person would want to do—see a Broadway play, shop in Chinatown, stroll through Central Park, and eat cheesecake and pizza. I was fortunate to have a place to stay with friends in Queens, across the East River from Manhattan. From the moment I arrived, the name Queens sounded oddly familiar to me. What was it about the name that seemed so important for me to remember?

The week went along as anticipated. My friend and I made our way through the crowded city streets at twilight. As we rode the rust-red 7 train in Jackson Heights through the aromas of fried arepas and grilled meats, Queens and its familiarity kept popping into my mind. Then suddenly I remembered. Years earlier, while I was taking a family history class at Brigham Young University, my mother and I had found a brown envelope in a box of old family papers. In it we discovered a deed to a cemetery plot purchased in 1867 by my great-great-grandfather John Edward Reiss. This cemetery was located in Queens, New York.

A Dead-End Line?

My mother, a convert to the Church, had diligently gathered information about her ancestors for 30 years. Since many of the family members who would have had valuable knowledge had already passed away, our information on several of the pedigree lines had stopped. This was one of those lines. All we really knew about the Reiss family was that my great-great-grandfather John Edward Reiss and his grandfather emigrated from Germany and had eventually settled and died in Ashley, Pennsylvania. The cemetery plot deed told us they had been in Queens, New York.

After calling my mother and retrieving as much information as possible from the deed, I tried to figure out what to do next. Since I had never done any actual family history research, I was worried that I would not be able to find any leads with only the name of the cemetery. Despite my pessimism, I decided to give it a try. I picked up the phone and dialed information. Stunned, I listened as the operator gave me the cemetery’s address and phone number without any hesitation. I never imagined it would be so easy.

Martin and Elisa

On a sunny but chilly autumn morning on my last day in New York, my friend and I hailed a cab outside my friend’s apartment and gave the driver the address of the cemetery. On the way, our Spanish-speaking driver asked why we were going there. My friend explained in Spanish that we were hoping to find the burial plots purchased by my great-great grandfather. The cab driver seemed intrigued and continued to ask questions as we drove. After sharing with us the importance of family in his Hispanic culture, he told us how amazed he was that I would do something like this for ancestors I had never even met.

Upon arriving at the cemetery, I went into the main office and explained my quest to the woman behind the counter. Since the family plot of eight graves had been purchased well over 100 years ago, I anxiously considered the amount of time it might take her to uncover any information. I waited, knowing that my flight was set to leave in a few hours and the taxi’s meter was still running outside. I was pleasantly surprised when she walked over to a card-file drawer and—as if this information had just been entered yesterday—jotted down some notes and returned to the counter within a few minutes.

“There are two people buried here,” she stated.

An indescribable feeling came over me. “What?” I replied.”Do you have any information on them?”

“Hold on a minute,” she answered. “Let me go look in another book in the back.”

Soon she returned with the names and burial dates for the two individuals. One was Martin Reiss, with no information except his name, since his body had been transferred here in 1867 from another cemetery. The other was Elisa Reiss, who had died at the age of three. Since it was a law in New York that only direct-line descendants could be buried in a family plot, I knew they must be the children of my great-great-grandfather John Edward Reiss. She continued, “There aren’t markers on the grave sites, so they might be a little difficult to find.”

At the Cemetery

With map in hand, our driver was beaming with enthusiasm as he drove the oak-lined William Avenue through the older part of the cemetery toward my family’s plot. Once there, we followed the map’s directions, searching for the proper locale among crumbling monuments. I was excited—after all, this was my family. But to see that our cab driver, a complete stranger, was so interested was truly remarkable. Once we found the site of the graves—a little area along William Avenue—the driver told us how sad he felt that the graves of these two children had no markers. We agreed.

As we walked through crunchy autumn leaves and acorns on the lane near our plot, I could imagine the solemn sight of John Edward Reiss coming here some 133 years before in a horse-drawn wagon to bury his tiny daughter Elisa. This image filled me with emotion. I was walking in the same steps as my great-great grandfather. It had been 133 years ago and our family now lived far to the west, but a member of John’s posterity had returned here in search of information and had found it. I truly felt the Holy Ghost had guided me to this sacred spot.

From Queens to Utah

As I returned home to Utah that day, I thought about finding Martin and his sister Elisa. I realized that family history work isn’t just for the older generation. I had found family members—even though I didn’t think I could. My mother had been frustrated for years, but all along, the answer lay in a brown envelope tucked away in her box of old family papers. The envelope had been transported by my great-grandmother Elizabeth Reiss Kendrick to homes in Pennsylvania and Ohio and finally to California. Then my mother brought it with her to Utah when she attended BYU as a young college student. It wasn’t just a coincidence that these few documents—the only link to these family members who had passed away so many years previously—would fall into the hands of my mother when she embarked on her quest to find her ancestors. Nor was it just a coincidence that I had the opportunity of being in the right place at the right time on my very first trip to New York.

I was bringing home with me the names of Martin and Elisa Reiss, whom we hadn’t even known existed. They would be added to our family history and, through the temple ordinances, be reunited with their family.

As the Lord tells us in Luke 15: “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not … go after that which is lost, until he find it? … And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost” (Luke 15:4, 6).

A Pull from Our Ancestors

President James E. Faust

© Busath Photography

“The process of finding our ancestors one by one can be challenging but also exciting and rewarding. We often feel spiritual guidance as we go to the sources which identify them. Because this is a very spiritual work, we can expect help from the other side of the veil. We feel a pull from our relatives who are waiting for us to find them so their ordinance work can be done. This is a Christlike service because we are doing something for them that they cannot do for themselves.” President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, “The Phenomenon That Is You,” Ensign, Nov. 2003, 55–56.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Joseph Alleman; brochure courtesy of the author