Genetic Geneology - The DNA Reveal

Opportunity Mourned, Life Celebrated – Our Elders

Image of Funeral Procession by Ellis Wilson
"Funeral Procession" by Ellis Wilson

Lately, it seems as if  barely a week goes by without an elder in the family or community passing on. Last month it was Uncle Johnny, last week it was Mr. Jackson, this week, Uncle Buddy.  Our elders, especially the 80  and 90 somethings have really been bidding us adieu, like the carbonation bubbles that sit at the bottom of my glass and then suddenly release themselves , float to the top, and dissipate ,so these elders seem to be flying away at a rapid clip!  With advances in medicine and  improvement in overall quality of living , maybe there’s just more elders making it to 80 and beyond, and then dying.  On the other hand, perhaps this feeling of “lots more people dying” is just a naturally occurring phenomena for all of us as we ourselves age, as we continue on our own slow march toward death. I feel a tremendous loss when these elders pass on, but perhaps some are just weary from life’s sojourn and ready to rest or “go home”.

Image of Mourning Twinw by Sylvia Maier
“Mourning Twins ” by Sylvia Maier

Here’s  what I really struggle with since becoming a family researcher. When elders in my  family or community transition, pass, go home, die , my thoughts immediately go into overdrive with this questioning:

“Did we capture their stories/family history?”and “Did we get the DNA sample?”

  I often wonder if others in the genealogy community struggle with this  feeling  of “Genealogy and/or DNA opportunity lost”?

Lately I have been feeling the need to “check” myself on this matter! So  my self check begins with the following line of questioning and reasoning.

Is it not enough for some of us that this person lived a life filled to overflowing  with  work, play, love, support, single,  married, children, societal/community contributions? That they fought, mourned, endured set backs and disappointments,  battled illness through out their life or toward’s the end, worshiped God, and ran life’s race with endurance and deserved to have a “Well done, thy good and faithful servant” uttered at their funeral service?

There are  all sorts of reasons why we do not get the stories or the DNA samples. Maybe they weren’t even able to produce enough spittle to provide an adequate DNA sample!  There is also mistrust of the medical establishment especially since many  in the African American community have lived through injustices like the Tuskegee experiment and Henrietta Lacks.  There’s the fear among many that the establishment will do something clandestine/subversive with their DNA  sample even though they may routinely  provide blood work  that is labeled with their name and other identifiers (and should be) for the medical establishment. Perhaps there were family memories or secrets too precious or painful  to share. Maybe dementia , Alzheimer, or time has claimed those memories. Yet for some of us, even momentarily, all of this is not enough! There is this overwhelming sense of urgency to claim this information before we  can’t! Would it be asking too much to add these to do’s to the funeral  pre-needs checklist? Ok, maybe I’m over reaching here, but you get my point!

Image of President of Guyana giving DNA Sample
Shawn Manbodh taking the DNA sample from President of Guyana David Granger (Ministry of the Presidency photo)

A Malian (West Africa) proverb says “An old man death is like a library that burns to the ground”. Well, the genetic genealogist in me takes it into overdrive – when an elder dies, without having been DNA tested, it’s not only the library that burns, but  lost perhaps forever is the ability to reach further back in time and identify those ancestors that have been lost to us due to DNA recombination  and/or a lack of family research.  I struggle with the constant since of urgency to DNA test the elders and talk to them about their lives, even when they are not related to me.  I cannot help but mourn the opportunity being laid to rest when there are no stories or DNA tested. The opportunity to make exciting DNA discoveries  that reveal the following and more.

Unanticipated ancestors, ethnicity, and relatives
Family mysteries resolved
Family secrets revealed
Evidence supporting or refuting family research
Rumors put to rest

Image of Priest in Cemetery with Mourners
Ernest “Doc” Paulin Funeral Image by Derek Bridges

Now mind you there is sometimes disappointment in all of this discovery. The truth is not always so pretty. But I would like to think that there are very few individuals who have absolutely regretted taking an ancestry DNA test. Maybe we could just add a couple of check boxes to the bucket list , one for voluntary genealogy sharing other for voluntary DNA testing just to give loved ones something to consider.

The point is , when I started heading down the path of  mourning over “Opportunity Lost” , I remind myself that “it is what it is”, and that this person has already given us enough in living their life. Relax , let go of the preoccupation with research, and be present in the  celebration of their lives , mourning of  their absence, and the comforting and encouragement of loved ones- what a wonderful opportunity re-discovered!

Image of "Uncle Joe's Funeral" by Sarah Jenkins
“Uncle Joe’s Funeral” by Sarah Jenkins

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  1. Kristin

    I have regrets when someone passes, or when their memory goes, without me getting all the answers and stories I would like to have, but I don’t obsess about it. The generation before mine is all gone in my family and mine is starting to go. We will never be able to get all the stories.

    However, after reading your post, I went and got a book of prompts and blank pages to write on that I made for my brother-in-law for Christmas but never had given him. I gave it to him. He is approaching 60 (which is young to me now.) and I hope he will fill it out.

  2. Col William C. "Chip" Morrison

    Well written. It is said those elders are our greatest generation in America. We are losing them at an ever great pace. Cherish them while they are still with us.

    1. Karen Galloway Post author

      Hey Wiliam! Indeed they are moving on. They were certainly “movers and shakers”! Not sure why they were labeled “The silent generation”.

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