This past week, I visited with family in a state several hours away from my home. The central event was my aunt’s 90th birthday party and a chance to get together with her and many cousins. I stayed with my son and his family who live nearby. That son has reached an age where he wants to refocus on building relationships with living relatives and start learning about his connections to family members who have passed on. So, he and I made it a point to visit four local cemeteries where our ancestors are buried.
During our time together and as I drove home, I had lots of time to reflect on the visit in light of the desecration and destruction of many statues and other public monuments and buildings in recent weeks and in various cities. This post is my personal take on why destruction of memorials crushes civilization.
WHY IS ANCESTRY IMPORTANT?
The Bible is full of lists of tribes and generations of families belonging to each one. Many readers are tempted to skip over these lists because, well, the people involved are long gone. If you take the time to read the lists carefully, however, you will come across little nuggets (character descriptions, skills or acts performed, unexpected links to others, etc.) that add depth – and lessons for our current era – to the narrative. When I was growing up, my maternal grandmothers used to slip into such lists from time to time in telling her stories. In centuries past, she might well have been tapped to be the village oral historian who could recite from memory the history of the families in that area. I was fascinated when she told the stories, but I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to remember all those names, dates, and places – especially when they concerned people who weren’t even our family members. I have come to understand that those lists are more than names, places, and dates. They are panoramas, textured and colorful weaves laid out to help us to understand the CONTEXT of history unfolding in ordinary lives.
It’s been more than 20 years since I started to work in earnest on my family genealogy. For the first several years, I took all my notes by hand. I got paper lineage sheets and filled them out (in pencil, I confess) as I discovered more and more names, dates, and places. The initial impetus was that I was scheduled to leave New England within the following 2 years and had made a promise to my brother who lives abroad that I would dig up as much new information as I could on site (town halls, cemeteries, church records, historical societies) before I moved out of the region. I had a few pieces of starter information and knew the location of two of the cemeteries. Several years into the search, I joined ancestry.com and now have two very large online trees in addition to my binders of hard copies, one for my family and one for the family of my husband, Johnny. My family tree has more than 12,000 people with enough remaining hints to keep me adding data for the rest of my natural life and beyond. In fact, I talked to my son about taking over the quest at some point.
Why do I tell you all this? Because, along the way, I found out more about myself than I could ever have imagined would be possible. So many places have come alive for me as locations where my ancestors lived, worked, and engaged in important life events and relationships. When I visit the cemeteries, I know the people there – and I know more of them and more about each one each time I go. I know about the times in which they lived, the hardships and joys they experienced, the difference they made to others and to the world around them, their beliefs, and their quirks. I know the circumstances of their births and often the causes of their deaths. For example, my 4-greats grandparents died within 3 months of each other during a deadly flu season in early 1814 (I thought of them many times during our current CoVid outbreak).
There is also the spiritual component. I found that I have a strong heritage of Christian faith, both among those who were raised with certain beliefs and stuck with them throughout life and those who found very different beliefs as their lives went forward. There are even a few preachers!
And there is strong patriotism. This aspect waxed and waned depending on the line I was following, but I continue to discover direct lines to Revolutionary War volunteers and to Civil War volunteers. One gg-grandfather moved his family to southern Indiana from Virginia in 1853 because he had “become dissatisfied with slavery”. His son, my paternal great-grandfather, fought on the Union side while close family members who stayed behind fought on the Confederate side. I’ve attached a photo of the tin type my grandmother left me of her father in his Civil War uniform. That one photo and all that I know about his service make the Civil War very real and important to me.
Throughout history, humans have found ways to leave physical memorials of what they thought was important. The pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge, the Easter Island heads, the Terra Cotta Army in China, and countless other statues, monuments, and markers. In ancient times, statues were thought to embody the spirit of the persons they honored. It is for this reason that you sometimes see noses broken off: this was done by enemies of the persons represented to keep the statues from “breathing” any more and to stop their power to influence people and events beyond the grave. Jews, Muslims, and many Christians do not use statuary in religious art, but most do mark graves so that the place of burial will not be lost to future generations. Grave markers are sacred, as they represent the person buried for those who are alive and for those who are yet to be born. It is heartbreaking to see a marker that has been broken or knocked over intentionally or simply by the ravages of time. I have visited many, many cemeteries over the years in search of markers for ancestors who are long gone. There is something very satisfying when I find what I am seeking. It means that I can spend time with the person, like visiting an earthly home, whenever I am in the area. One of my favorite cemeteries is in a small village in southern Austria next to the village church. Johnny’s great-grandfather left that village at 18 with a cousin to come to America. Everyone else stayed in the village. The cemetery is filled with graves of his relatives, many of whom were unknown to us before we visited there. The original church and all its records had been burned by Napoleon’s troops, but the priest gave us copies of all the family records that had been kept from the early 1800s on after the current church was built. We also discovered many living family members in the village – close cousins – who helped us to put more pieces of the family history together. They even had copies some of the same very old family photos that Johnny had. And the eldest of the relatives still lives in the original family home, nearly 300 years old. May it always be preserved.
Secular statuary, art, and monuments/buildings are meant, literally, to leave a mark on history, to bring the past to remembrance. It is said that what is represented is only a part of the story. Of course. But much can be inferred about what is left out. Throughout history, significant changes in power have often brought about the destruction of symbols of the losers. In the U.S., certain groups are right now destroying or at least trying to remove certain statues that represent historical figures, both secular and religious. I want all the statues. Add more if necessary! Statues are history in three dimensions. People and societies make mistakes. Statues help us to remember both the good and the bad of the past.
Over the course of my life, I have moved an average of every 2 years and have lived in several different U.S. states and even other countries. One thing that continues to fascinate me no matter where I land is that each community has a personality that is anchored in its history. The sooner you can learn the history of a place, the more quickly you can understand why things are done the way they are in that place. And the shorthand way to learn the history is to find out how the residents have memorialized people and events from the past. In my current town, for example, there is a historic district (soon to be two) with special rules about how the buildings are to look and a visitor center for the part of the district that belongs to the state and that is a registered National Historic Landmark. Some of the streets in the town are still paved with bricks. And there are war memorials, banners on light poles that honor those who fought, and American flags – lots of flags – on public and private properties. The town was founded by a Christian communal society but later became an important industrial town and a magnet for immigrants from many parts of Europe. Some of the ethnic social halls are still identifiable, and the churches have proud ethnic histories. As the steel industry waned, a third era began.
The town is still trying to find its proper balance of history, industry, and a fresh persona for the 21st century as the 200th anniversary celebration year approaches. But it’s still the kind of place where older locals can tell you who used to live in each house decades ago – and what has happened to the owners and their descendants over the years. My grandmother would be nearly 130 if she were still alive, but she would feel right at home with my oral historian neighbors. I feel honored to be treated like a local after only 10 years here.
As you can see, my answer to the title question is a resounding YES! If you don’t know the relevant history, you are missing an important key to understanding yourself and your family and a common vocabulary to work with others on moving forward as a community.
This is a huge subject, both deeply personal and fundamental to society. I encourage you to embrace history. Do your own research using as many primary sources as you can find so that you develop a broad perspective that includes the experiences of many, many others whose histories are very different from your own. And do all you can to preserve history in the form of documents, buildings, art, statues, monuments, and more. Document and use what you learn. Write a book, build an online tree, volunteer with groups and organizations dedicated to preserving history, educate and encourage others. There is always more to learn, implement, and pass on.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– Jorge Augustín Nicolás Ruiz De Santayana (George Santayana)
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