The ancients knew that a man’s forebears play an important part in his identity. Indeed, the Greek Historian Polybius (200 – 118 BC) records just how central they were in his observation on funeral practices in the Roman Republic:
After the interment and the performance of the usual ceremonies, they place the image of the departed in the most conspicuous position in the house, enclosed in a wooden shrine. This image is a mask reproducing with remarkable fidelity both the features and complexion of the deceased. On the occasion of public sacrifices they display these images, and decorate them with much care, and when any distinguished member of the family dies they take them to the funeral, putting them on men who seem to them to bear the closest resemblance to the original in stature…. There could not easily be a more ennobling spectacle for a young man who aspires to fame and virtue. For who would not be inspired by the sight of the images of men renowned for their excellence, all together and as if alive and breathing? What spectacle could be more glorious than this?Polybius Histories 6, 53
As ever, I cannot help but think that Romans were onto something here, something from which we in our hyper-individualised age of self-actualisation could do well to learn. For, not withstanding the popularity of sites such as Ancestry and Findmypast, we tend not give our forebears quite the same role in our lives today. But we should. Not to return to a culture where family inheritance matters more than individual effort and application, or even so that we can claim bragging rights for the exploits of our ancestors during the great events of history, but because, as for the attendees of Roman funerals, it gives a better sense of perspective on your life, and acts as a source of inspiration and strength, and as an antidote against the harder experience of life. Let me explain.
Firstly, even the most cursory investigation into your family history grants you perspective into just how small a part you are in the great tapestry that is your family. Growing up, I knew my immediate family and grandparents, and a few aunts, uncles, cousins and the like. It could all be jotted down, quite neatly, a sheet of A4 paper. Then, when I started doing my genealogy, the number of people to whom I realised I am connected by blood or law quickly ballooned. I found that there were branches of the family, directly linked to my Irish and Scottish forebears as far away as New Zealand and the US. I become a much smaller part of a much bigger story, but this was no bad thing, not least because that story reached the farthest corners of the world.
Secondly, your genealogy, more than the story of your ancestors, is – to a large extent – foreshadow your own story. Your forebears had many of the traits, gifts and kinks that make you ‘you’ – whether its your baldness, aptitude for language, your sense of humour, your rash temper and so on. There could therefore be nothing more instructive than to see how they thrived or failed in the challenges that beset them. More than that, their life choices, their decisions, to move or to marry, go a large part of the way in explaining how you came to exist. Their story is your story. Why would you not want to investigate it?
Finally, investigating your ancestry helps you to realise and appreciate your good fortune and can fuel resilience and a sense of responsibility when life gets tough. As a corrective to such moments of despondency, when your own life chances don’t seem to be all that they could, it is always worth remembering that your ancestors almost certainly had it worse. My great-great-grandfather was a farmer in Lisnahunchin, a tiny hamlet in Northern Ireland. He was there all his life and died an old man with £8 to his name. I, by contrast, live in relative prosperity in Surrey and have had the good fortune to have travelled and worked throughout Europe. His example often comes to mind when life seems hard. It makes me grateful for what I have inherited, and keen to pass it on.
“One generation passeth away” said the preacher, “and another generation cometh.” But to ‘pass away’ need not mean ‘to die and be forgotten.’ In studying your genealogy, you rescue them from the abyss time and, for a while, at least, bring their memory, and all that it means for the present day, back to life.