Sunday, May 5, 2013

Family History: Skeletons in the Closet

If you are a family history enthusiast, you will eventually find some unpleasant facts in the lives of your ancestors. We euphemistically refer to the occasional "horse thief" but it can be much uglier and disturbing than that. Sometimes it can be so horrifically ugly and we think to ourselves, "If only he could have just been a horse thief!" What to do?

One of the reasons I do family history is that I have an innate obsession to be a Truth-Seeker. I don't care how bad it is, I want to know. It's not to revel in the misery of bad things or to gossip or hold family "secrets" over others. I want to understand. Understanding gives me grounding. So many pieces of life and family just click into place in memories when some of these difficulties are uncovered and understood.

Understanding also gives me the opportunity to forgive. Of course, the farther back the generation, the easier it is to do. The closer, yes, those people we actually know, lived with, and sometimes hurt us, that's a bit harder but even more important. And it's an easy thing to say if infinitely difficult to do. But we are not alone.

There are two parts to the Lord's Atonement. He heals sin and he heals the hurts caused by sin.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor His people according to their infirmities. Alma 7:12
In the process of family history work, especially with ordinances of salvation in the Temples of God, we provide and experience both aspects of the atonement.

I've written before how it is to stand on the sacred places of burial of ancestors long gone. Sometimes I get a sense of spiritual stirring confirming to me that they will rise again in physical form and will also rise clothed in the blessings of priesthood and eternal life in the presence of God.

That's why I want to know. And that's why I do family history work. To heal.

The Churchyard Cemetery of St. Mary's, Clifford, Herefordshire, England, looking toward the Black Mountains of Wales
Same day

So what to do in practical terms?

IMHO Record the history in your materials. Pass it down to later generations. They will not be nearly as disturbed as you if it relates to people you know that may have passed on. Share truthfully but discretely with family members who ask about specific circumstances. Honesty does not always require the whole truth. But it does require truth, so it is wrong to misrepresent. Abbreviated truth is just protect sensitivities. And confidences must be protected, but not necessarily "secrets."


  1. Interesting post! I wonder what you found? In my case, I learned of my grandmother's uncle who committed a mass-murder-suicide during the great depression. One of the victims was a little girl, my father-in-law's second cousin. It's not in our family history books, but passed from word of mouth. Perhaps something should be written about it?

    1. You have to decide for your self. But it seems to me a charitable and honest assessment of what was obviously a difficult and horrible situation is better than word-of-mouth stories that may not be as accurate or charitable.

      And yours is much worse than my skeletons. But I think everybody has them to one degree or another. And a lot of them hurt still today. How can we forgive and help heal if we don't even know?

  2. Our Grandpa used to say, when we would visit, "Find any horsethieves in the bunch?" I am trying to teach consultants to have this attitude - to report the good and the bad without judgement or emotion. It's just a fact; choices which were made, no judgement on our part. Perhaps if we were more open in years past about our family's choices, our younger generations would have a more discerning eye towards choice and accountability. Learning from our ancestors is one reason why Spencer W. Kimball, about journal keeping, "DO IT!" - Thank you for this article. I'd like to add your reference to our Area newsletter. With Appreciation, Ted and Karen Meyer, Area Temple and Family History Consultants, Scottsdale Coordinating Council, Scottsdale, Arizona -

    1. Sure! add me in! grant[dot]Vaughn[at]gmail[dot]com
      I'm a Temple & Family History Consultant currently and help staff our Bountiful Heights (UT) FHL. I am retiring in a couple of months and hope to sign up for downtown service at Church History or Family History Library. (Also, I'm doing some historical travel consulting. See


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