The following is a guest article for Christine Bell’s Genealogy column.
I love that it is becoming so much easier to find obituaries online now. FamilySearch.org is currently indexing a great many, and personal genealogists are posting more online themselves. Not only does the obituary tell me more about the family, but it often tells me what kind of person the deceased was and what mattered to him.
The following is the obituary for one of my ancestors:
Lark Howard, ex-Confederate soldier and probably the oldest man in Eastern Kentucky, if not in the entire State, died at his home near Royalton Thursday evening after about four months illness caused by a fall. Interment was made in the family cemetery Wednesday, the 20th, his ninety-ninth birthday. Mr. Howard was an ex-Confederate soldier, having served throughout the Civil War as a Lieutenant under Captain Cox. Like all the members of the human race, Lark had some of the weaknesses of the flesh, but he lived a consistent life. Honesty was his watchword and manhood his slogan. At his home on Licking River hundreds have been fed and sheltered. it was said of him and his good wife who preceded him in death, that not even the raggedest beggar was turned from their door. He lived a long life in a world of crime and wrong, and he was never in a courthouse on any charge and was never sworn as a witness in a court proceeding. He manifested his faith in a Supreme Being and evidenced his respect for religion. His standards of honesty, his loyalty to friends and his interest in the general welfare of his country made Lark Howard a figure that will long be remembered, and won for him hundreds of friends who will mourn his loss. God preserved his life, let us believe, on account of his sterling qualities, to ripe old age. The closing days of his life were spent in obedience to the faith he professed and he awaited with confidence the last stroke of the clock of time.
About half my Kentucky relatives were slaveholders and the other half were abolitionists. Nearly the entire town, and much of the county, was related, but they differed on the issue of slavery. When the Civil War began, some families sent half their sons to fight on one side and half on the other, in order to avoid losing all their sons if one side was completely destroyed. Given that the Howards tended to own one or two slaves per family, it is likely, however, that Lark was fighting for a side he supported.
While I disagree with him on that point, I love the description of his character. I particularly love the mention that he and his wife fed and sheltered hundreds of hungry people, never turning anyone away who came begging. His daughter’s obituary notes that after her husband’s death, she and her maid devoted the remainder of her life to feeding the hungry as well.
When I was growing up, my parents were always trying to make us pay attention to who might be in need. “Mr. Johnson’s lawn is getting a bit long since he hurt his leg. I wish someone would go mow it.” We knew which someone he had in mind. “I’m a little surprised you took money for that babysitting job, since you know they are having a hard time right now.” We knew what we were supposed to do with that money.
It wasn’t until I started reading ancestor obituaries that I realized my habit of volunteering for things was inherited from my ancestors. It was a tradition handed down from generation to generation, going back at least as far as my Pilgrim ancestor, who volunteered to give up his space on the boat when the Pilgrims lost the Speedwell and couldn’t take everyone who originally signed on.
When I find myself annoyed because I somehow managed to accept seven new volunteer opportunities in four days, I comfort myself with a reminder that it is in my genes, or at least in my family traditions. I am programmed to volunteer for things. I’m programmed to care that people are hungry, or can’t read, or are having trouble learning to speak English. It’s a gift my ancestors passed down to me through many generations and it’s something I value.
Lark’s faith in God and his respect for religion were also gifts he handed down to me. Although my parents were members of two different religions and had stopped attending either church, they taught me about God and taught me to respect all faiths. I chose a church of my own and planned to continue the tradition of believing in God and respecting faith, as well as to reinstate a tradition of church attendance. Lark’s lack of fear of death because of his faith holds more meaning for me as I get older.
I think that one gift genealogy brings to us is an understanding of how we became who we are today. We owe so much of our character to the traditions and training of our ancestors. While we’re free to change the negatives they might have handed down, I like to make a point of continuing the positive traditions. I love knowing that some of the good things in my life are not just personal traits, but a part of who my family has always been. It’s bigger than me—it’s a heritage.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.