Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Genealogy: It's Not For the Living

It was the title of Henry H. Crapo's 1912 family history—Certain Comeoverers—that first caught my eye. "Comeoverers," as it turns out, was what Henry called his immigrant ancestors. The word hasn't yet caught on, for reasons that escape me.

What kept my interest was the prefatory note Henry wrote to his nephew, William W. Crapo, explaining why he had spent time cataloging dead people, and why William shouldn't become a genealogist himself. If only I had read this advice when I was a boy.

Here's how Henry begins (emphasis mine):

My dear William:

At the present lustrum of your life you are, and should be, supremely indifferent to your ancestors. They are dead and gone and that's an end on't. Your utmost powers of receptivity are properly absorbed by vital considerations. "Dead uns are nit"—as you would put it. In presenting you the following notes I ask not that you consciously attempt to change your present attitude. Inevitably there will come a time when these records of your forebears will have for you at least a passing interest. To you at that time I dedicate them. I hope, indeed, the time will never come when the pulse of glorious life will beat so slowly that you can afford to devote it to genealogical study. A lonely and a sterile life alone can find sufficient satisfaction in the dry-as-dust occupation of delving into dreary records to find a name, a mere name, the date when the name was born and died, the date when the name married another name, and the dates of all the other names that went before and came after.

Hoping to save you from so deplorable an expenditure of vitality, I, not inappropriately, present to you the names of many of the men and women who are responsible for your existence.

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