Do family firms rise and decline in three generations? Not only since Thomas Mann's “The Buddenbrooks” has the survival rate of family firms intrigued family business scholars, practitioners and consultants. In this article, we trace the family firm survival rate to its roots and discuss its empirical basis and univocal reading. We then ask how the mortality of family businesses could be measured, and which contextual factors need to be taken into account. To this end we explore the literature on firm demography, a field which is particularly concerned with age and mortality, and identify crossroads with family business studies. We conclude by suggesting a re-conceptualization of survival rates within a larger firm demographic research framework.