A few days ago, I attended the funeral of a long-time family friend. It was a lovely service, for all that death was involved, but it stuck out in my mind because of something the preacher said. Much of the information on our tombstone is beyond our control, our name, our dates of birth and death. But we weren’t there to discuss those things; we were there to talk about the one thing we could control: the life represented by the dash connecting the start of our life and its end.
That dash encompasses a lot of ground. It defines who we are, much more so than our dates of birth and death. Yet many genealogists reduce their ancestors’ lives to those two dates, with little regard for what happened in between save for the birth of their progeny, specifically the connecting ancestor. In the rush to push lineages as far back in time as possible, the very things that made our ancestors who and what they were are lost: the day-to-day activities, their religious affiliation, the labor of their hands and heart, the nature of their character. They are no longer vibrant individuals woven integrally into a thriving network of family, friends, and neighbors, but a name on a piece of paper with two small dates attached.
Ignoring the connecting dash, the largest portion of an ancestor’s life, can lead to a loss of identity which can, in turn, foment a serious crisis in one’s research. The inability to define an ancestor as an individual, an individual who was a thriving member of his or her community, is one of the primary causes of brick walls, from the ancestor with a common name, to the one who seems to appear out of thin air, to the grandmother whose maiden name is missing.
As genealogists it is our duty to remember not the sweeping spans of history, the movements, the wars, the politics, but the individuals who lived that history. Our ancestors were a part of the past, but they were not defined solely by history’s grand moments. They loved and lost, toiled and worshipped, fought and bled, daily and in a quiet way that history has long forgotten. And yes, they were born and they died, but that is not the sole function of a human being, nor is it our sole capability. That little connecting dash between the dates on a tombstone is what makes us who we are. Forgetting that, we lose not only our past but ourselves, for who will remember us when we are gone and little remains of our lives but a stone monument faded with time?