Of Dead Family Members and Getting to Know Them

Some years ago a radio commentator expressed revulsion toward the popular fascination with genealogy. To make his argument short, he did not see the point. In his view all of those people are dead and gone. What do they matter?

Inasmuch as the comment was made before recent notable advances in research on gene-based hereditary diseases, we can excuse the radioman’s ignorance of how important genealogy can be to tracing the roots of many things that make us ill. At the time, however, I would have liked to relieve his ignorance of other points perhaps even more relevant and important.

In all fairness, I agree with a narrow part of his argument, his objection to the democratization of the old aristocratic practice of using genealogy to prove yourself better than someone else. Such a pitiful exercise in arrogance and pride is pointless. Given how family trees intertwine in just a few generations, there is probably nary a person of western European background who is not a descendent of Charlemagne. The story is similar for people from other parts of the world. And we are all descendants of Noah and Adam, so where are the bragging rights?

It is on his central point where the radioman’s rejection of genealogy falls to the ground. What a woeful and lonely view of man’s condition is embodied in the view that once someone dies he is forever gone! Genealogy, or more broadly speaking, family history, is founded on the belief that the dead in profound respects live on, that they do matter to us. Let me suggest three ways among many, ranked in a generally progressing order of importance.

  • The members of our family who have passed on are in many aspects part of us, beyond the shared DNA. Much in our habits, practices, language, beliefs, and our culture in general has deep roots in those who raised and taught those who raised and taught us. Most of that is probably worth retaining and cherishing, some of it in need of overcoming, but there is a rich heritage there to be discovered. Significant personal meaning can be found in the recognition that the current generation is only the leading edge of something very big that has been going on a long time.
  • As I mentioned, you do not have to do much family history research to discover that we are linked together, more connected than separate. Few genealogists can avoid the powerful realization of being part of the family of man. Our respect for humanity and for each other deepens.
  • Most important, the dead are not gone. They have merely passed from this brief state of mortality, brief for all of us, to the next state on the journey that makes up eternity. Each of us will soon be joining those who once walked where we walk. Family history is the effort to get to know them now, whom we have the privilege of knowing better for a much longer time than mortality has to offer.

Explaining the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reminded them that our Father is God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:26, 27). The mission of Jesus Christ is to provide life to all, to carry out the “work and the glory” of God, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Jesus Christ speaks more than symbolically and beyond His own relationship when He refers to God the Father. The family relationships and ties, so precious to us now, are eternal. That means that they not only are intended to last forever, but they reach across the generations, beyond death—to generations past and future. They can be among those few precious things we take with us to the grave and beyond. That is not a vain wish of every loving husband and wife and father and mother. It is an inheritance from our Divine Father.

We can begin to build and extend and preserve those relationships here and now. Why wait?

(First published January 6, 2013)