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Life, Death, Genealogy, and Spirituality

The perennial mystery of life is the unavoidable reality of death. Throughout recorded history and also throughout prehistoric times, human beings have expressed belief in an after-life. Prehistoric humanity expressed this belief by providing the deceased with grave goods for the next life and through their artwork. The ancient Greeks thought of the after-life as a vague and shadowy existence, colorless and ineffectual, that could only be counterbalanced by the fame one amassed by performing mighty heroic deeds throughout a lifetime. The Hellenic culture would also develop  a more spiritual understanding of their mythology about death by allegorizing the stories to find deeper meaning and by initiating people into mystery cults. One of the greatest examples of this is a set of religious rites known as the Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece. The celebration of the mysteries began in Athens, at the Piraeus, and then the initiates marched to Eleusis, a small town about 8 miles southwest of Athens, to celebrate in the Telesterion (a unique temple in the    

Photo Above: Red Figure Athenian vase depicting the “Return of Persephone.” Hermes is leading her up out of Hades. Hekate is holding torches and her mother Demeter is on the right holding a royal staff.

form of a great hall of many pillars) two more rites, which initiated them fully into the mysteries of the goddess Demeter. Persephone, Demeter’s daughter had been “raped” by Hades; forcibly taken to the Underworld in a great chariot to be his wife. Demeter conquered the usually resolute will of Hades (the Underworld) by making him return her daughter Persephone to her during half of the year (Spring/Summer). Initiates believed that they had learned secrets that would enhance their life in Hades after dying. Somehow the knowledge of the mysteries could humanized shadowy Hades into a livable place. Hades (Death) might not be as horrible as originally thought. The specific details of the secrets and the three rites are not fully known and so speculation continues about the actions and words performed in the Telesterion and the symbolism associated with them displayed on Athenian vases and in sculpture.

The ancient Egyptians provided their pharaohs with an abundance of beautiful and useful grave goods, which they would need to travel to and live in the spiritual world with the gods. When there, they would still work hard for the good of the people in this world. Everyone is familiar with the splendor of the items found in the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun. The Egyptian belief in the after-life was intense!  They went to great links to make sure the soul would survive death. They had many complicated beliefs about the soul. To put it rather simply, the Egyptians, like the Greeks, had  allegorized one of their myths: the story of Osiris, the god of the after-life. As the ruler and judge of the dead, he was also known as the “King of the living” since the ancient Egyptians believed that the dead were “the living ones.” There are a number of versions of the myth but basically, Osiris is murdered and eventually his body is ripped apart and flung throughout the land. His wife Isis, collects the

Osiris and Isis

pieces and tapes them together for a proper burial. The gods are so impresses by her devotion that they resurrect Osiris and make him the king of the dead. Osiris was also associated with the flooding and retreating of the Nile (a process of destruction and renewal). Again, we see a myth associated with a natural phenomenon representing the “return of life.” Death, represented as a deluge, is conquered through Osiris’ rescue to life by Isis, as represented by growing crops. In the Greek version, Death, as represented by the rape of Persephone, is conquered by life, as represented by her rescue by Demeter, the goddess of wheat and the return of spring. The themes of descent into death, a rescue, and a return are shared by these two ancient myths. The mysteries of Osiris and Isis would, during the Hellenistic period, become incredibly popular. There are many other examples of ancient “mystery cults” promising secrets of a better after-life.

The early Hebrews also had a shadowy vision of the after-life; it being only a reflection of he vitality and energy of this world. This concept would change by the Hellenistic period when the concept of “justice” came to the fore. The prophets of ancient Israel emphasized the importance of moral behavior (obeying the will of Yahweh) and having an intimate relationship with Yahweh. The prophets challenged the people to be moral and just in this world and, by doing so, achieving an upright relationship with God. However, if there was no justice found in this life for an individual, their faith in a just, righteous, and monotheistic God encouraged their belief in justice found in the next. Within the Jewish tradition, there are many views of the after-life and not one is singled out as dogma. “The world to come” is a phrase used to refer to both the “messianic age” to come and to the after-life. The continuance of life is rooted in a relationship with the deity.

The mausoleum site of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di (259 BC – 210 BC), is an incredible example of grave goods for the next life. The emperor believed he could continue his reign from the next life. His mausoleum has not yet been excavated but it was described as a huge structure of pyramid shape replete with resplendent art work and items paralleling his needs in life as emperor. A river of mercury runs through it and the ceiling is studded with uncountable gems and jewels to represent heaven. A great mound covers this underworld palace. Around this huge complex historians estimate that there were buried thousands of terracotta figures ~8,000 warriors, all unique, 130 chariots, 630 horses, and a 150 cavalry horses. There are also eleven terracotta acrobats and strong men for after-life entertainment. According to Chinese historians, it took 36 years for 700,000 men to create the emperor’s army! All those artists were executed to keep the emperor’s secrets!

Unlike the western religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are exclusive (a person can’t belong to more than one religion), Chinese religious beliefs are inclusive. The three traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are intertwined and infuse each other. Confucianism is more of a philosophy of how to live properly. Taoism is a more deeply personal belief in the unity of all things. Chinese Buddhism is of the Mahayana branch. The goal is to transcend the suffering of the world and enter Nirvana. One of the unique teachings of Mahayana Buddhism is the higher aspiration, even beyond attaining Nirvana, of becoming a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who sacrifices full entry into Nirvana to help others attain it. A bodhisattva, one might say, has one foot in Nirvana and one in this world.

Even today,  Chinese culture is profoundly influenced by another religious tradition, ancestor worship. It is the belief that one’s ancestors have an existence after death and can influence their descendents’ lives. Just as Confucianism emphasizes having correct and proper relationships with the living, proper reverence to one’s ancestors must also be practiced. The traditional practices of ancestor worship reinforce the importance of the extended family in this life and the after-life. Even unbelieving Chinese will practice these rituals to show filial duty to their family. The traditional belief is that the dead ancestors are very much interested in the activities of their living family. Living members should offer food and drink and symbolic gifts to the dead, which will help them in the after-life. This will cause them to look favorably on the living who can then make requests of them. Unhappy ancestors can lead to unhappy events and disturbing visitations.

On the left of the altar is a glass filled with rice. Joss sticks are stuck into it after the ancestors are invited to partake in the offering of food specially prepared for them on the Hungry Ghost festival.

Within the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Christian traditions is found the belief that the Saints in heaven are part of our spiritual family and care about the living. The living should venerate the saints, perfected human beings, who will pray for them. Although not filial by nature, this belief still underscores the widely held belief that communication of some kind can pierce the opaque wall of death.

Another persistent belief of humanity is in ghosts (A topic which would take another article!). This is a belief that some how the spirits or souls of the dead can visit and attempt communication with the living. Indeed, today, belief in ghosts or in paranormal activity is very popular; witness the popularity of the TV reality programs Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, and Long Island Medium, or, programs like Ghost Whisperer and Medium. There are also people who believe that your spiritual lineage can be traced, not through your dead ancestors, who may or may not visit you, but through your past lives. This approach, of course, is rooted in the predominantly eastern belief in reincarnation.

After reflecting on the above examples of human belief in the after-life, what do these ideas mean to us today in the 21st century in America? Do our ancestors effect us and/or does our faith or curiosity impact them? What is the nature of the family community across the great divide of death?

It is a given that there is a biological genetic connection between members of a family both living and dead. Our physical life sprang from their lives; from their DNA. The next question is more personal. Do our inner lives, our characters, our personalities, our talents, and inclinations also spring forth from their lives? What physical and also intangible qualities do we share with our ancestors? What can they tell us about ourselves? What advice springs from their experience? What inspiration can they give us?

These questions are not utterly unrelated to genealogy when you consider that the explosion of interest in genealogy in America was facilitated by the Church of Latter Day Saintsand its spiritual mission to baptize the ancestors of its members. This is the church’s best known doctrine among non-Mormons. It is strongly believed that those who have died can and should be

Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

baptized or re-baptized by the Latter Day Saints so they can enter fully into heaven. Another unconventional belief of the Mormons is that the family unit continues on intact into the next life. The raison d’être for the huge FamilySearch Library and website is to identify the dead and have them baptized through living proxies. Mormonism is an exclusive faith ~ a dead ancestor must experience their baptism and celebrate all the temple ordinances that a living Mormon experiences to achieve salvation. But, according to their doctrine, the dead can choose, however, to reject the offered of their baptism.

Another unconventional Christian church that believes that its rites of liberation, education, and blessing can similarly improve the life of the dead, is the South Korean Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The oriental practice of Ancestor Worship is the probable influence for this Unification doctrine.

In the Western world, genealogy has moved beyond it’s original role in Europe as a proof for the divine right of royals and aristocrats. Genealogy in America changed its focus due to our emphasis on meritocracy instead of aristocracy. The new spotlight was on antiquarianism; establishing a connection between the researcher and an ancestor who participated in the American Revolution or who was an early pioneer. The shift was away from the affirmation of elitist social status through the study of lineage to the search for a legacy or heritage full of meaning, commitment, and connectedness with the history of our country. It is this search for meaning which constitutes the spiritual aspect of genealogy.

If a genealogist or historian can reconstructed an ancestor’s life enough to form a reliable and holistic narrative, lessons from her/his life can be learned. This reminds me of an ancient Greek proverb: “Call no man happy, until he is dead” (Histories by Herodotus). In-other-words, don’t proclaim a person “happy” until you can see the whole pattern of his or her life. You can only judge once you know how s/he ended up in the long run. We can learn from our ancestors because, from a distance,  we can see the over-arching character of their lives.

I believe that the power of our ancestor’s stories can impact our own spiritual journeys. Their stories can effect our stories. Their experience can shed light on our experience. How they navigated the treacherous waters of their times can help us do the same in our times. Their struggles, courage, and faith manifested in their journeys of self-discovery can influence our journeys. As I have always said, the genealogical hunt is the thrill of unraveling mysteries and the uncovering of fascinating and life-illuminating stories. Genealogists know through their research that the life of an individual is interconnected with many others in multiple ways. Like the story of George Bailey in the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the life of one person touches so many people in astounding ways. It was the same with our ancestors. And, like in our daily lives, the most unlikely people in the most surprising places in our genealogical past, can profoundly challenge us to think anew about what we find meaningful today.

Every time I watch an episode of “Who do You Think You Are?” on TV, I tear up because I see how deeply moved the searcher is when s/he discovers the particulars of an ancestor’s life. I have seen grown men, Civil War re-enactors portraying their own ancestors on the very battlefields on which they fought, shed  tears because it meant so much to them to be able to do so. It’s like they are transported into a deeper reality; a greater meaning and purpose. It is, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the experience of “the mystic chords of memory,” stretching from the ancestors’ graves “to the living heart and hearthstone” of their families “all over this broad land.”

Most people become interested in genealogical and historical research in mid-life. The American character is one of energy and youthfulness. which is focused on the present and persistently looks forward to the future. In young adulthood a compulsory nod is given to the past but the emphasis is placed on individuals and families establishing themselves. It is in mid-life that a more critical and reflective attitude is taken. James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith” has become a well-known paradigm for spiritual development. His book “Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning” is a classic in pastoral ministry. The fifth or final stage is rarely attained since it is the stage of intense mysticism but the journey through the other stages is common to us all. It is basically the process of moving from our literal-minded childhood faith and assumptions to a more sophisticated and self-disciplined belief system. It is within the fourth stage when a person begins to feel free to question his/her inherited childhood faith, or lack thereof, and to seek for answers perhaps in other traditions while trusting more in her/his own experiences. This search for answers will also lead to the questioning of other long held assumptions outside of religion belief. Institutional religions sadly fear and usually do not encourage this kind of soul-searching, but, if approached positively, questioning doesn’t necessarily destroy faith. A greater and more integrated understanding is ultimately achieved. The search for family heritage and spiritual answers are often intimately connected in this stage.

The genealogical search can help us get beyond our ingrained individualism. It helps us reconnect with our social nature and broadens our view. In mid-life we ponder that which is greater than ourselves. This can take the form of our family community and heritage, which is indeed greater than ourselves and spans time. In my case, one of the things I discovered in my family research was the diversity of churches to which my ancestors belonged. I had grown up thinking that everyone had been stalwart Presbyterians but I discovered membership in many other traditions including non-doctrinal churches. Learning this affirmed my life-long ecumenical point-of-view, which was different from my immediate family’s. It was quite liberating.

It’s not surprising that, in our day when the traditional nuclear family unit has undergoing  a diversity of change, that genealogy has become so popular. We all known friends who were adopted as babies and desperately have sought their biological parents and family connections. People whose families, for whatever reasons, have hardly preserved their traditions, whether ethnic or religious, are now intently seeking that information. Many people feel disinherited . . . even like orphans in a storm. People are looking for a “red thread ” of unity that flows from themselves back into the past and provides some answers concerning their identities. People are seeking the consolation of community and a meaningful tradition in which to be proud. Aristocratic “lineage” may not be as important as in the past, but “legacy” is. We all want to embrace a “legacy” of lives well lived. We want to know about those “shoulders we are standing on” as well as the gene pool we swim in for health reasons. Genealogy can provide us with a heritage of ancestor-heroes, but, I would insist that they be realistic heroes and that we truly researched their lives and discovered them warts and all. There will also be found some ancestor-scalawags! We need to ask, how do those darker stories also influence us? A family’s heritage is usually a very interesting mixed bag!

Some excellent books that detail personal searches for heritage are:

A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee’s Search for Her Roots” by Katy Robinson (Berkley Trade, 2002).

A Wealth of Family: An Adopted Son’s International Quest for Heritage, Reunion, and Enrichment” by Thomas Brooks (Alpha Multimedia, Inc., 2006).

An Orphan in History: One Man’s Triumphant Search for His Jewish Roots” by Paul Cowan (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2002)

Dances with Luigi: A Grandson’s Search for His Italian Roots” by Paul E. Paolicelli (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001).

Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Crown, 2007).

Full Circle: A Journey in Search of Roots” by Dr. David A. Hecker, Ph.D. (CreateSpace, 2012).

How Will I Know Where I Am Going, If I Don’t Know Where I Have Been?: A Genealogical Journey” by Elizabeth Ruderman Miller (AuthorHouse, 2009).

Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters” by Jennifer Wilson (St. Martin’s Press, 2011).

Take Me With You: A Secret Search for Family in Forbidden Cuba” by Carlos Frias (Atria Books, 2009).

Every person must decide from their personal experiences and faith tradition whether s/he believes that the wall between this life and the after-life is a blank solid wall, or is a porous wall, and if porous, just how porous that wall is. Many genealogists have believed that they have been guided to a grave or an important primary record by an ancestor who wanted to be found.  Are these experiences purely serendipitous or messages from the beyond? There are a few books about the spiritual experiences of genealogical researchers. Some are listed below. I highly recommend the third listed by Henry Z. Jones.

o “True Miracles with Genealogy: Help from Beyond the Veil” by Anne Bradshaw (CreateSpace, 2010).
o “True Miracles with Genealogy: Volume 2” by Anne Bradshaw (Brigham Distribution, 2011).
o “Psychic Roots: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy” by Henry Z. Jones (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009).

I am a Christian and believe in an after-life. However, I am not psychic nor have I experienced anything that I would describe as a “miraculous” discovery while researching. I am, however, tenacious and intuitive. I have been emotionally moved and changed by my research experience. I have grown as a human being because of it. My genealogical research is  no longer concentrated on my own family, but, none-the-less, I can be informed and transformed by the authentic life-story of an unrelated person. I believe that the effort to discover and make connections with those who have lived in the past is not wasted time because the work has a dimension beyond our immediate understanding. I echo what Hamlet says to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1.5.166-7).

Genealogical research is an important tool in the human quest for meaning. We look into the past and curiously we see ourselves looking back and if our ancestors are looking back at us, they are most likely seeing themselves in us.


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