Saturday, June 13, 2009

Corporal Works of Mercy

I can’t help but think that I’m doing a good thing by doing genealogy. True, it’s fun, it’s a compulsion, it’s exciting, and it’s nerdy – all things that attract me to it – but maybe it’s also an objectively good thing. Keeping the memories of people around, a century or more after they’ve died; that’s a good thing, right? I’m just doing my best not to let a person’s entire earthly existence fade into the ether. I was thinking about this today – trying to come up with good excuses to drag my uninterested cousin and my not-very-interested boyfriend to a cemetery tomorrow, perhaps – and it occurred to me that maybe – just maybe – genealogy could be considered a Corporal Work of Mercy. It’s not often, these days, that we get to fulfill the one about burying the dead ourselves. Tending the sick, feeding the hungry – those are things we can do, day-to-day, or at least occasionally. We go to funerals when necessary and act respectfully, and don’t speak ill of the dead sometimes. That’s as much as we feel obliged to bury the dead. But what is burying the dead, really? Why is it encouraged? Why is it merciful? [Mercy-full] In essence, we’re entreated to bury the dead in order to show respect to the temporal remains of souls who have departed this life. What is genealogy? Though their physical remains were buried decades or even centuries ago, we’re also respecting the remains – the records, the stories – of the temporal lives of those who came before us. What could be more respectful than pulling from the brink of extinction the memory of a Julia or a James Thomas Toner, a Malinda or a Mary O’Hara, a Charles Thomas Loughlin? Could uncovering the dead be as merciful as burying them?

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