There are times when I wonder why the process of completing pedigree charts and family group sheets for multiple generations would continue to hold any fascination for me. After all, the work is fairly routine, and after a while, the draw of making new discoveries or finding one's "roots" would surely wear out. Granted, there are some who pursue this family history practice out of a sense of obligation or even for religious reasons, but that is not me. By the time a researcher takes that personal journey back to the early 1700s, it would seem that would be plenty of time to discover who one is.
And yet, that compulsion to keep going still remains. Thankfully, I've recently been able to see myself reflected in a glimpse of the work of others. As I read through Barbara Rae-Venter's recent book, I Know Who You Are, I noticed her description of working for hours to uncover an unknown identity, such as the several cases of abducted or murdered children discussed in her book. As anyone knows who has used DNA to confirm the actual identity of an unknown ancestor—or even help an adoptee find a birth parent—the process can be tedious and repetitive, taking hours to complete.
That's when I got to wondering: why? What drives people to devote so much time and energy to such undertakings? Perhaps it requires a certain type of person. Or a certain high level of energy.
It always helps when someone can reframe a situation, helping us to see it in a different light, and that is what Barbara Rae-Venter brought to the forefront in her book. Describing the process of identifying the remains of several young children through different cases, she shared the words of those who spoke at the belated burial services when those formerly unidentified little ones were finally laid to rest.
"A name is a powerful thing," one deacon addressed the mourners at one such burial. To finally know that name "makes a huge difference."
In the words of another speaker at yet another such service mentioned in the book, "A name is a dignity every human being deserves—to be called something."
While we may not be in the middle of unfolding scientific progress, or solving crimes which have stumped experts for decades, those of us compelled to continue this research journey are still contributing something, no matter how small. We are giving every human in our ancestry a name. An identity. And with that identity, we begin to know these strangers within ourselves just a little bit more. After all, it is their DNA which makes us who we are.