Genealogical Blasphemy

As an off-the-cuff remark to a question after a presentation I made at the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree recently, I said something to the effect that we didn’t need to know every minute detail of our ancestor’s lives.

It was not a slip of the tongue.

There were quite a few looks from the audience indicating that some could not believe what I had said. A genealogist who believes that we don’t need to know absolutely everything about our ancestors? Yes. I am a genealogist who thinks we really don’t need to know every detail of our ancestor’s life or our ancestors’ lives. Singular or plural, it makes no difference.

I’m not talking about information that is in publicly available records. I’m not talking about restricting any access to public information or closing records. Not by a long shot. My comment had nothing to do with public records of any sort nor restricting access to those records or the information they contain.

And for a variety of reasons, I think it’s beneficial to have a knowledge of your family’s health history.

But I think there’s a limit.

The dead need some privacy and there are some details that are better left to the dustbins of history. There are some family squabbles for which we don’t need to have a detailed, blow-by-blow account. It is often sufficient to know that there was “bad blood” between two individuals and what the cause of that “bad blood” was. The minute details are not always necessary. If I witnessed a fight between two brothers at their father’s funeral that resulted in extreme name-calling and their mother returning to the funeral car in tears, I’m not certain anyone is served by a multi-page account of the event. Knowing they argued over their father’s estate from the moment he died is probably sufficient.

And if, for whatever reason, we only have “part” of the story, then we should only report that part which we know from our own first hand knowledge and experience. If  I personally saw that relative A and relative B did not get along (because I never witnessed them speaking to each other at family functions, was told to never seat them at the same table, witnessed a few [or a great deal of] verbal spars between them, etc.) but have no idea what caused the problem, then I should not speculate in my records about what the problem was.

Because if I do not know, then I do not know. I should stick to what I know.

Is it blasphemy to say that we don’t need to know every minute detail of our ancestors’ lives? I don’t think so.

I’m reasonably certain that most of us have a detail or two we would like to take to our graves as well.

We are researching these long-deceased individuals, we’re not necessarily their personal confidant.






13 thoughts on “Genealogical Blasphemy

  1. Peggy Lauritzen says:

    Michael, I was in your class when you said that, and I felt like giving a hallelujah shout. I had just had a conversation with a sister-in-law, who was mortified that I would consider throwing out a program from a genealogy conference her mother attended in 1964. All I could hear was, “But it’s part of her history!”

  2. Well said .. being genealogist does not give us the right to invade the privacy of another person. Living or dead. Things left unsaid can have more impact on a narrative, rather than spilling the beans to the nth degree. Well said

  3. Leslie Mehana says:

    Especially where there are “strange” uncles and messed up kids in past generations. Two generations down the line don’t need to know this stuff any more than the neighbors did.

  4. annewandering says:

    And then there are family secrets that should never have been family secrets because they hurt people today. Would be better to get them out in the open that allow real healing to happen.

  5. The problem is, you don’t know if you need to know something or not, until after you know it. The GPS says do a reasonably exhaustive search. If you deliberately don’t look into why two brothers did not speak to each other because the “sordid details” are nobody’s business, how do you know whether or not the reason for the estrangement was genealogically significant?

    • I’m well aware of the GPS and I’m pretty certain I said that the reason for the disagreement was good to know, but some of the details are better left to the dustbins of history. I stand by that statement. One can know the essence of why two brothers (or anyone else) didn’t get along without knowing all the sordid details.

      If two brothers got into a fistfight at a funeral after calling each other a worthless SOB, insulting each other’s wives with epithets I won’t use here, and caused the mother to run to the funeral car in tears, I’m not certain the details of that fight are worth preserving for generations. It’s sufficient for me to know one brother threatened a partition suit if he wasn’t made “happy” after his father died. I don’t need to preserve the details of every fight he had with his mother and sister during that process. If a mother refused to speak to her daughter for the last thirty years of her life–that’s something to track somewhere. If the daughter and her daughter tried to see the mother at some point and the mother told the daughter’s daughter to “get the asshole off my place or I’m calling the sheriff, to which the daughter’s daughter replied, ‘Grandma, you a are (*@&#$'” I personally don’t have any problem with editing out the details of that altercation in my notes on any of the individuals involved. Sometimes it’s wise to let the nasty details die with the person who caused them. IF that’s wrong, then I’m guilty as charged.

      I don’t see how the GPS would be served by knowing those details. I simply can’t see a situation where knowing who called who a MF in front of the preacher at the funeral is relevant to the GPS.

      I may have the wrong viewpoint, but I’ve seen several situations of this type up close, and frankly, there are certain things that simply need to die with the person who created them.

      I also think our ancestors (and relatives) are entitled to take a few secrets to their graves. After all, they are their secrets, not ours. And we are their descendants, not our personal confidants.

      Again, I’m not saying to “hide” the fact there was an arguement, that there was a child born out of wedlock, who the biological parents were, etc. I’m just saying that certain supporting details

  6. Madolyn Hayne says:

    You made a point that needed to be made. Sometimes, us family amateur genealogists get
    boggled down with details. I really like to stop and think about what their lives were like, I
    feel very close to many of my ancestors…..not just because of the paper trail, but because these were people I’d love to have known.

  7. I too feel close to my ancestors as I stumble around as an amateur genealogist. Yes, there are times I wish I knew more about certain ones. However, I’ve decided to accept that there must be a reason that ‘clue’ or ‘fact’ remains elusive, and I leave it alone. Could be one of those ancestors made the decision not to perpetuate family history that they could not effect.

    Bravo, Michael.

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