Ordinary Lives: Family History is Best Left in the Graves of Our Ancestors?

Last night a family member asked if I’d unearthed any more embarrassing incidents in our family history. The individual appeared to be particularly concerned about the stigma from having a one-handed gypsy ancestor who gave birth to an illegitimate son whilst on the road in the company of a gaggle of 18th century chimney sweep apprentices. They straw-clutchingly tried to point out that giving birth on the roadside was perfectly normal for the period. There was no ambulance service, or so their argument went.  

And so lies one of the dichotomies of family history. My relative seemingly didn’t want any hint of scandal in our background. They wanted an ordinary, uneventful lineage. They took anything otherwise as casting some kind of lingering reputational stain passed down through the generations. A case of these things are best left in the past. Dirty linen, no matter how old, should never see the light of day. The dead should be portrayed as paragons of virtue. Their human weaknesses buried alongside them in their graves. In short the skeletons of ancestors should be left in their graves. 

They want a family tree populated with ancestors who lived ordinary, unremarkable, hard-working lives, with no speck of scandal. 

Batley Cemetery – Photo by Jane Roberts

Yet for others these more unusual events add colour to the every-dayness of “born, baptised, married, died, buried” records. They stand in the camp of ordinary lives are boring. Not worthy of re-discovery. Unremarkable genealogy is uninteresting. I’m not sure how true this is but, for example, the ordinariness of Michael Parkinson’s ancestry is cited as the reason why his story was ditched by “Who Do You Think You Are?” 

For me family history is about every-day lives. Some are ordinary, some are less so. But that’s part of the rich tapestry of life. It’s a mixture of all sorts. And you can’t gloss over the less palatable tales. No more so than you should discount the mundane. All facets are equally valid.  

5 responses to “Ordinary Lives: Family History is Best Left in the Graves of Our Ancestors?

  1. I totally agree. I love the good, the bad, the ugly. It makes the people in our pasts come to life more. It makes us better understand why we are how we are now. If every person was boring and was just like everyone else we wouldn’t be very human, we’d be more of a robot.

    • I think if you’re writing any type of history it should be as honestly as you see it. You shouldn’t gloss over, change or expunge to suit. That’s a type of propaganda/censorship. Family history is a combination or ordinary and extraordinary lives. That’s what makes families.

  2. Like most of us I have found good and bad in my genealogy. The strength of the people involved to overcome life’s hurdles should never be overlooked. The rouges of the family just add a little spice to our family history.

  3. Bridget Moonraker

    I have been thinking about this lately, because at the moment I am not researching my own family, but the backgrounds of the men of the parish who died in WW1. Like the writer of the blog and the comments above, I believe honest histories are more useful and interesting. However, there is more than one way of telling the truth. As I write up the Life Stories on Lives of the First World War or the information sheets I do for these men, I try to think how I would feel (or perhaps a slightly more sensitive, non family history hardened version of me) if the man had been part of my family, writing accordingly.

    • Hi Bridget
      I had exactly the same dilemma when researching and writing about the men on my Parish War Memorial. Families of many of the men still live in the area and some of the information was sensitive.
      I reached the same conclusion as you did. I was happy to pass the information onto descendants if they wanted, but it didn’t go in the published book. In most cases it wasn’t relevant to their stories, as the book was an overview and not an in-depth life story of individuals. If something was relevant I did include it, although perhaps not overtly so depending on sensitivity.
      I would have far less of a dilemma for my family. I also tend to apply a roughly 100 year rule for my blog, unless it’s uncontroversial. And it wouldn’t apply to client research.

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