Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why Do Genealogy

I often wonder why we do genealogy. When you think about it, what purpose does it serve? I suppose it all depends on how you look at it.

One could argue that genealogy is essentially pointless. The dead are the dead, and nothing we do can ever bring them back. No amount of wishing will bring back those relatives we find most fascinating, or the family keepsakes that were mentioned in letters or articles, or seen in pictures, and are now lost through mischance or neglect.

And yet we continue to do genealogy. Why?

From a practical point of view, genealogy can tell us about diseases that run in families. In my family tree Samuel Pollard Halls (died 1900) and his grandfather Philip (died 1846) both appear to have died from strokes. More recently William Tanton Halls (died 1940) died from Lou Gehrig's Disease as has one of his grandchildren.

In some of us it can fulfill that psychological need to know where we come from, and perhaps by extension, tell us where we are going, or at least are descendants.

In some, it is a need to be remembered themselves. To give the younger generation a feeling for what our own life and times were like, what our own likes and dislikes, loves and losses were, so that we will not be just names on a page like so many that we have recorded.

For others it may be knowing whther or not we are better or worse than our ancestors. We can measure ourselves against their yardstick and determine if we would measure up to their abilities, their successes.

There is the thrill of the chase. The detective work that requires hours of sitting in front of microfilm readers to find a record. Of manipulating the online database so that it not only spits out the answer you want, but the answer you need, no matter how good or bad. Of taking a group of seemingly unrelated clues and putting them together in a pattern that leads you to new and unsuspected places. And the challenges of figuring out who someone is, like one of mine - Catherine Halls, who married John Dawson in Lambeth, Ontario in 1871. I still don't know how, but she must be related.

Finally, the fierce joy one feels when you find the picture of the relative who must have a picture somewhere, the story that makes what was just a name a person, or the record that pulls all the threads together. Intertwined with the thrill of the chase is the sheer intellectual rigour of the detective work.

There are other reasons to do genealogy I am sure, but I bet most of us fall into one or more of the categories above.

In the end, I find there is a certain sadness in genealogy. Perhaps it is digging through musty records, or all the graveyards we visit, or the contemplation of the dead, knowing that someday, we will be the record, or the gravestone, or the picture that is brought into the light by some descendant of ours, who will feel that fierce joy that we have all felt on discovery of the mysterious. Or perhaps knowing there might be no light for us.

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