Is it Wrong to Open and Read Other People’s Letters Years After They Die?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” If I can make a judgement from this comment alone, my parents, especially my father, left me a very substantial way to remember them.

The tub in the photo only holds around three quarters of the letters my parents and grandparents kept. These letters are all from my father’s side of the family. Most of them are addressed to him and were written by his two sisters and one of his cousins. They are mainly dated from 1970 onwards. One of his sisters lived in Germany, the other in Peru and his cousin moved around Europe for work but eventually settled in Sweden. All of the letters are in German and the majority are handwritten, making them difficult for me to read, let alone understand. None of them have as yet been translated.

I have another smaller tub of correspondence from my mother’s side of the family. She did not keep as many letters as my father did. Or perhaps she did not write as many. There are only a few letters addressed to my maternal grandparents.

My father looked forward to receiving mail. I remember him checking the letterbox several times every day to see if the postman had delivered anything for him. As he got older it became more of an effort for him to find the small padlock key he had hung by the front door, put his sunglasses on (the brightness of the sun hurt his eyes), shuffle slowly down the front steps and across the lawn to the letterbox. He would bend over it, carefully inserting the key into the small padlock and open the back door of the letterbox which swung upward. After collecting whatever was inside, the process would then go in reverse, and he would always tug several times on the locked padlock to make sure it could not be opened.

My father would also spend many long hours composing letters. As his eyesight failed, the time he took increased and he often had to have all the lights on in a room to help him see what he was writing.

I have always been fascinated by letters. I love reading epistolary novels, where the entire story is told through letters. Letters are always more personal and immediate than say newspaper articles or stories.

I do not think I am doing anything wrong by reading these letters. I hope they will give me some insight into the daily lives of the people who wrote them. After all, if they did not want anyone else to read them, they should have destroyed them. And they might be full of valuable information for me as I research more of my family history. Perhaps the letters from my aunts will describe moments from the past or memories of their childhood? I only hope these letters do tell me something worthwhile from the past and do not just mention what the weather was like for that particular day!

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Elise McCune

    Alex, you must hardly be able to wait to have
    your father’s letters from his family translated!
    I hope you share some of them on this blog or
    a description of the contents. I almost feel I know
    some of your family through your wonderful and
    informative blog.


    1. Avatar photo

      Elise – I hope I can find the time to have them translated! When I do, I’m sure to share them.

  2. Carol Simpson

    I agree they should have destroyed them if they didn’t want anyone to read them, but I think it depends on the content.
    When my mom died, we made the decision to bury mom and dad’s “love” letters with her….unread, as we felt that was between them.
    I believe the content of your parent’s letters will teach you a lot about your family.

    1. Avatar photo

      Carol – I admire you for not reading your parents “love” letters! I doubt that I could have been so restrained!

  3. Kirsten

    Sandy, the top letter to the left was written by me, it won`t tell you anything important and you know that!
    love Kirsten

    1. Avatar photo

      Kirsten, I haven’t read any of them yet so I didn’t know! But all of the letters are important to me because they are all from family.

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