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Why We Need Family History

Many of us remember trekking to the cemetery as kids – impatient while our parents planted flowers at relatives’ gravestones or dropped off a basket for Memorial Day. We might have wondered why we bothered to go to great-aunt Edna’s grave: she died 50 years ago, didn’t she? We didn’t know her, so what does it matter?

With age comes wisdom, or at least understanding. As we grow older, we see ourselves as part of the fabric of life. More, we see our lives woven into the tapestry of our family history. And, if the record number of subscriptions to is any indication, we’re not alone.

In today’s global reality, where our neighbors come from around the world, and we may live thousands of miles from our hometown, we’re searching for a connection – for meaning beyond our choices of profession, recreation, and location. We yearn for a sense of belonging. When we meet someone who lives 20 minutes from where they grew up, who still has Sunday dinner with their extended family, we become wistful – that would be so nice! we think. I haven’t seen Uncle Charlie in years – and my brother lives on the West Coast.

Does anyone still live in your family’s hometown? Do you even feel you have a hometown? Regardless of where you live now, you are part of a larger family, and you all came from somewhere. They say there are “6 degrees of separation” between all of us. While that may be difficult to prove, your connections back a few generations – and out a few cousins – should be fairly easy: start with birth and death dates, both usually recorded on the grave stones of your family.

Once you go see the cemetery plot for yourself, you’ll notice other things: an unfamiliar name listed on the stone or marker, perhaps a veteran’s flag at a relative you never knew was in the service. Or maybe the site has been lovingly tended – but you don’t know by whom! The questions that arise are urging us to become more connected to our family, and seeking the answers we learn their stories – and maybe find some personal connection to who we are, as well. Maybe you’re the only musical one in your family…but then you find out your great-grandmother played the piano at the silent movies. Suddenly, you feel a closer to her; you feel a connection.

If you don’t live near where your relatives are buried, a little on-line searching may be necessary. One helpful website is Volunteers continually add photos and information from gravesites across North America. Virtually every cemetery is listed, and you simply enter your relative’s name to find a picture of the site, plus all the information on the stone. If your relative is not listed, you can put in a request and someone local will go to the cemetery and enter the data for you. You can also ask the volunteers for other information. For example, ask if there are any markers and what do they say, where in the cemetery is the plot located, and does it look like anyone visits?

You may find that each question leads to another, and keeps you delving deeper into your family’s roots. This curiosity helps weave your colorful family tapestry tighter. So share the stories with your brother on the West Coast and bring him closer to home. And just maybe Uncle Charlie will have a story of his own to share!

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