Many varied cultures around this 21st century globe maintain a deep reverence for the ancestors. This fact has touched me as it has been explored in the BBC Two television series The Story of China presented by the historian Michael Wood.
In Chinese religious and traditional culture ancestor veneration is found as an everyday ritual, occupying its own physical and spiritual space in the home. Many other religions and cultures practise ancestor veneration and remembrance of the dead, such as the Hindu annual commemorative ritual of Tarpan or the Jewish Yizkor prayer and Yahrzeit tradition. Whilst visiting the graves of family members is for others a secular but deeply personal tradition which can even involve pilgrimage across continents.
My question is this: can the popular leisure-time interest in family history research turned multi-billion pound genealogical industry be viewed at all as a conduit for the deeper consideration of our ancestors through the lens of ancestor veneration and remembrance? Is locating our ancestors in the records akin to visiting their graves when we metaphorically visit the historical records of our family’s past? And can new knowledge of family history impact our internal views about the personal value or significance of one particular ancestor or our broader ancestry?
In an interview with Steve Wright, Michael Wood described it as “amazingly spiritual, that idea that the ancestors have made us who we are and we […] value them”.
The act of remembering the ancestors, by recalling their names and our own memories of their lives, or though the study of what we can know of their lives through historical records, is for most of us a long way from commemorative or venerative ritual.
Yet connecting our thoughts with the knowable details of our ancestors lives touches on something intangible and yet physically embodied in each of us – our identity.
Recalling the ancestors reinforces family identity. It can underpin strong kinship bonds and strengthen family loyalties. Exploring personal family heritage is also an encounter with values and beliefs. We all live in a someone else’s legacy, whether we recognise it or not. But that legacy has a personal form specific to each one of us. How we envisage it and respond to it is unique to each of us.
There are four significant areas which family history research feeds into: as a leisure-time activity through our interaction with digital media and the heritage industry; citizen science data collection as we contribute to the creation of genealogical databases; personal development through individual heritage exploration; and genetics as we unlock and share the contents of our DNA.
But where are the ancestors in all of this? As we carry out these genealogical activities how does this shape our view of our ancestors and their significance? Do we simply observe, or does this go further into commemoration or veneration?
So what does your interest in researching your ancestors mean to you, is it a journey of self-exploration? Does it mark a juncture in your family lineage? Or does it reinforce family or personal identity? Is it just about the ancestors and their window on the past or does it have a spiritual dimension?
The Story of China, BBC Two, February 2016
Steve Wright in the Afternoon, Interview with Michael Wood, 22nd February 2016
Hannah Gill, historytrace, 17/03/2016
Historytrace can help you to research your family ancestry and explore the significance of the legacy in which you live. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family heritage on a deeper level.
You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Revered and Remembered Ancestors – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Jing Villareal.
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