Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why Family History?

I'm reading a translation of Rustic Baroque by Jiří Hájíček. In this book, the Czech genealogist protagonist has an interesting internal dialogue:

“I put the laptop on my knees and turned it on. I was compiling a tree of some family line that I couldn't care less about - granddads, great-granddads, great-grannies, names, surnames, dates of births and deaths… Then I stopped to stare at the leaves above me. The sun shone through them and I spotted pieces of blue sky and torn white bits of cloud, and all of the angst of that moment which I could not get a grip upon even for a second flowed into me. Deep sadness and a feeling of futility as to what was really the point of it all… The dim monitor displayed the names of people who no one knows anymore, who no one living today ever saw. They have no faces, most of them even have no story. Only dates of birth and death, cradles and graves,  cradles and graves, all over again, and I bring them out into the light from the moldy books of archives and people pay me for that…”

Mormons don't relate to this attitude very well. “The” purpose is frequently repeated at church: it's about saving your ancestors. It's almost like genealogy is gamified by temple work: you do the research for the purpose of taking the names to the temple, where you stand in proxy for these people in ordinances (e.g. baptisms). When you can go back another generation it's almost like a “level up” in a video game.

What I have often wondered is why non-Mormons would ever be interested in genealogy. What is the appeal to people if there is no (apparent) higher purpose? Why do you study these dead people if you aren't going to DO something with the names?

You don't have to bring your own family names to the temple in order to attend and do ordinance work; there are always names there waiting. Around 2009 (I think) the LDS church completely stopped doing the name extraction program (basically, they used to submit names they indexed from records), and now it relies only on patron name submission. Many people live too far away from a temple to attend frequently, so they submit the names to an internal system which shares them with every temple in the world.

After I was first endowed, I quickly realized that I did not want to spend ~2 hours doing proxy endowments for people who were not real, or for whom the ordinance had already been performed. I remember going to the Provo temple once and being given a random name that was meaningless to me, and thinking, “How do I even know if this person is real, or just a sloppy duplicate? I want my time to matter. This person needs to be REAL.” Since then, I have tried to always bring my own family names to the temple. That means spending time researching and finding them.

Here's the box of names that I have taken to the temple since ~2008.

A really interesting internal change took place because of this process of seeking my own ancestors. The more I learned about the details of their lives, the more I loved them. This makes a huge difference in the experience for me.  It is no longer a mere task or duty to fulfil in order to be obedient; it is a meaningful act of service and love.

It is like giving a Christmas gift. Who benefits in gift giving? Both the giver and the receiver. You can give because it's expected, and it's your obligation. Or you can give because you really care about the receiver. There is an innate joy felt from giving something from your soul to someone else. It is deeply personal and meaningful. I feel this way more and more, and it is a powerful motivator behind why I do family history.

What I think is so fascinating is that non-Mormons seem to feel this way, too. They have discovered that genealogy is an addictive euphoria: finding and connecting with your past, learning the details of your ancestors’ lives, knowing your own identity more fully. I think that Mormons need to experience this joy much more than we currently do. I think it's a sad and egocentric pride when we think of the dead people of the past only as, “people to save.” The truth is that these dead people do a large measure of “saving” us. Malachi 4:5-6 discusses this principle of the hearts of the children turning to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children, lest the earth be smitten with a curse, or in other words, utterly wasted. The purpose, the very reason for our being on this earth, is connected to our relationship with our families. There is much for us to learn from those who came before us. It makes the experience much more real when you can do ordinance work for a woman whose life and story you can imagine, whose name you have read a hundred times, whose identity you know relative to the others in your pile of names.

Today I did sealings and baptisms. The sealer was an old man with a half broken hearing aid. He noticed that some of my names said “Brosch” and others “Brož.”* He said, “oh, this is an example of the name getting changed at Ellis Island.”

I was probably impertinent but I couldn't let that ridiculous myth go unchallenged (nobody's name officially or legally changed at Ellis Island). I said, smiling, “Well, actually, this person is from the 18th century, the 1760’s, so...no…they did not go through Ellis Island…” (I could have also pointed out that they lived and died in Silesia, Central Europe, but that was going a little too far.) The room erupted in laughter. The sealer’s eyes twinkled as he leafed through my stack of card names until he found one. “Well… This one is from 7 years before the 1800’s, so it's almost the 19th century.” I nodded and conceded that tiny useless fact to be true. Later, my friends laughed about it with me, “only you would say that to a sealer, Kate.”

I think that we all have a lot that we can learn through the process of building relationships with our dead relatives. I'm much more impressed and encouraged by my non-Mormon genealogy friends’ efforts in this regard: they understand that this process is about the immense joy found in gaining knowledge and love for their family.

Mormons should follow the example of those people seeking their dead for its own sake, because the reward for all of us, the living, is priceless.





*I wish I knew the “right” way to handle this problem.






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