The dried leaves of mid-November swirled around the gravestones of a rural cemetery as late-day clouds threatened a storm. In a far corner, near centuries’ old oaks, 25 members of my family gathered around a flat rectangular stone, greeting each other, embracing, and making a few introductions. We were not mourning a recently deceased relative, however, but celebrating the lives of seven ancestors whose names, until now, were seemingly forgotten.
My brother has always had a fascination with genealogy and spent decades researching our father’s family, whose ancestors emigrated from Sweden in the late 19th century. After moving past the penciled family trees and ancestry.com results, he traveled around the state to visit gravesites, former residences, and genealogical societies to fill in the blanks of our descendants’ lives. Over the years, I showed mild interest in his findings, nodding my head and uttering the casual “Oh, really? That’s interesting,” until a recent discovery gave us all a reason to reconnect to our past – and to each other.
When my brother realized that upon their deaths, our great-great-grandparents and several of their children were buried in unmarked graves, ancestry suddenly became more than a faded photograph or a facsimile on a computer screen. We knew how easily these lives could be forgotten, so my brother set out to memorialize them with a proper marker. They deserved better, he said, after enduring the hardships of a laborer’s life and the premature deaths of several children who were buried without a gravestone. What they deserved, as we all do, was the dignity of a designated resting place.
We all say how important family is, how we would do anything for each other when needs arise, but none of us expected the generous donations that came in from relatives across the country, from Pennsylvania and Missouri to California, Maryland, and Connecticut – all to fund a 2’ x 4’ gravestone for people we never knew.
After years of lying beneath unmarked sod, our ancestors would, at last, be remembered, with a sacred blessing and an engraved granite stone around which we gathered on this brisk November day. As we huddled together waiting for the prayer service to begin, I saw my daughters talking with third cousins they had just met, my husband shaking hands with a relative we hardly knew and my father gazing at the grave of his own parents, now deceased for decades.
This is my family, I thought, though one that extends beyond the obvious connotation of those with whom I live. It truly was my family, and despite the distance of time or place, it is they who hold the same storied history that descends from an immigrant couple who, until this day, was barely a thought. In that moment, I saw that 100 years after their deaths, it was their lives – and our desire to remember them – that drew us together. I found myself in sudden awe at the incredulity of it all.
My brother introduced a local pastor who welcomed us, blessed the stone with seven engraved names, and, quoting from Isaiah 43, said, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine.” Though lost for so long, they were each at one time called by name, a name that God always knew – and now ones that we knew as well.
As the service ended, we embraced again, adding a “Happy Thanksgiving” to all our good wishes. That sentiment took on a renewed meaning, as we rejoiced in thanksgiving for our kinship, our shared history, and the knowledge that our ancestors could now rest easy with their names no longer forgotten.
By Emily Clark