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The Two Deaths

By Daniel Hubbard | September 16, 2012

The other day I ran across a new concept that I’ve thought about many times before. I suppose the right way to put it is that I heard it put in a new way. I also heard it in French and that always seems to make a thought sound profound. (Unless, of course, French is your native language, and then the sound is, I assume, mundane.)

“Le temps entre les deux morts”—the time between the two deaths. The first death is physical death. The second comes when we fade from all memory. It seems to me that a common theme of tragedy involves the second death arriving before the first. Even a second death that comes shortly after the first gives a sense of melancholy.

Our mission as family historians, should we chose to accept it, it to prevent that second death if it hasn’t yet occurred, or try to bring our ancestors back, Lazarus-like, if their second death has already come to pass.

We all have some knowledge of that second death. Perhaps your mother knew that her mother used to tell a story about her great-great-great-grandmother that had been passed down over the generations. Yet your mother didn’t remember the name attached to the story, or what the story was about or even how many generations back it took place. All that is left is the memory that there was a story.

It was bound to happen at some point. no story can live on forever. Eventually it fades or by accident disappears. That ancestor in the now forgotten story has now died the second death. At the time of her physical death, her name was placed upon a physical stone that was placed upon her grave. After a few centuries it may be buried, or broken or simply worn beyond reading. Now a stone without a name exists also in memory’s cemetery, that very unphysical graveyard that we carry within our recollection.

The physical stones are what they are but the mental markers we can fix. Our job is to get out the research tools, find the path that leads back to the unkempt and abandoned section, get out our mallets and chisels and carve the names back onto those stones.

I might even propose that there is another death in between the two in question. A person can be remembered but the connection forgotten. We all have names that float in our heads,  we might even know something about them but we have no idea why and perhaps we don’t care. When those people are ancestors, they have died just a little bit more. The family historian tries to cure that form of death as well.

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