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Backward Living

Obsessing over long-dead relatives is not always a good thing.

By D.P. Sorensen
Photo by John Kilbourn 
Posted // May 5,2010 -

The annual meeting of the National Anti-Genealogical Society (NAGS) last week went largely unnoticed by both the media and the public at large. All the attention was focused on the four-day conference of the National Genealogical Society held at the Salt Palace, at which thousands of ancestry enthusiasts took in the latest tools for digging up their roots.

Thorpe Mendenhall, the mild-mannered former orthodontist who heads up the NAGS, is on a crusade to point up the folly of the genealogy mania now sweeping the world. He took time off from his whirlwind schedule to grant the Deep End an interview.

Deep End: Why do you have a bug up your ass about genealogy?

Dr. Mendenhall: I think it is a colossal waste of time. As Jerry Sloan says, don’t play backwards. Or as St. Paul says, “Behold now is the day of salvation.” I suppose it was harmless enough back in the days when it was a mind-numbing hobby akin to macramé or collecting bottle caps. But now it has taken over people’s entire lives. Genealogy fanatics spend all their waking hours tracking down a long-lost great-great-greatgreat-great grandma who was married to a fishmonger in Finland. When do they have time to lead their own lives?

Deep End: But don’t folks have a deep desire to find out who they are?

Dr. Mendenhall: I know who I am. I’m Dr. Thorp Mendenhall, retired orthodontist. I’m not my mom or pop, nor am I Gramps or Grammy. I’m certainly not my great-great grandfather, who, by the way, was Brigham Young’s barber. Rumor is he pulled out a couple of the Prophet’s teeth, which my cousin shows off to friends when he has had too much to drink. But think about it. The farther back you go, the less connection you have. The DNA gets pretty thin.

Deep End: But isn’t it nice to find out you have a 17th cousin 12 times removed whom you can pal around with in the frozen fjords of Norway?

Dr. Mendenhall: I can’t think of anything worse.

Deep End: But isn’t it special to discover someone who will treat you differently because you are related?

Dr. Mendenhall: Are you saying we should be nice to people just because they’re related to us? What about the idea of treating everybody the same? Looking for people who are just like us just perpetuates the divisions and antagonisms and wars that have brought the world to such a sorry state.

Deep End: Why do you think genealogy has become such an obsession?

Dr. Mendenhall: Well, I don’t want to get into the religious angle, which, as far as I can tell, has something to do with giving your ancestors a chance to join the church up in heaven. Why God can’t just go ahead and give them a celestial thumbs up on his own is beyond me. But, it seems to me, in general, that people are getting more and more afraid of the future, so they climb aboard the way-back machine to dig up dead ancestors. It gives them a spurious sense of reflected immortality. After all, digging up dead ancestors is sort of like bringing them back to life. I saw something that proves my point when I snuck into the Genealogical Society’s convention over at the Salt Palace.

You can now set up websites for dead ancestors, with photos, favorite movies and so on. Do you really want to be friends on Facebook with a German shoemaker from the 14th century?

Deep End: Actually, it might be interesting.

Dr. Mendenhall: I think it’s creepy. The next thing you know, we’ll have ancestor impersonators who will reminisce about the good old days, for a nice fee, at family reunions.

Deep End: Before we close, let me ask you about the success of your anti-genealogical crusade.

Dr. Mendenhall: It’s getting worse every day. People are no longer living their own lives because they are living the lives of their dead ancestors. They will have to wait for future generations to dig them up and put them in scrapbooks and Facebook. Their lives will thus be lived by their descendants, and their descendants, in turn, will have their lives lived by their descendants, and so on and so on. But because the present generation is living the lives of earlier generations, the present generation will have no real lives for future generations to live. Every generation from now on will literally be living in the past.

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