Souls of the dead

scarecrowDepending on your background, this week you could be celebrating All Souls Day or Día de Muertos, or Halloween on the eve of All Hallows’ Day. The now-obscure idea is to honor the souls of dead family members and loved ones, so benefits will accrue to the departed, the living, or both.

The catch? Mere months of family history research have made it obvious that some or even most of my ancestors were dishonorable. Their obvious motives for migrating to the North American colonies in the 1600s were to obtain cheap land by displacing indigenous people, to be permitted to own enslaved human beings, and to practice new religions that authorized and encouraged all of the plunder and called it manifest destiny.

Let’s not forget the witch burnings inspired by the sweeping frenzy of self-righteousness. In Connecticut in 1653, one of my tenth great-grandfathers was a clergyman present during the hanging of an accused witch. His influence in the community could have spared her life, but maintaining an illusion of moral superiority must have been far more important to him.

Forget honoring their souls. What should I do to redeem the souls of horribly misguided dead people I’ve discovered?

Those of my ancestors who were foolish, selfish, and ignorant—the majority, I suppose—were enticed into wrongdoing by the propaganda they swallowed. Propaganda was spread by their church leaders, by government officials who underwrote the conquest of the new world, and by the colonial era’s version of greedy multinational business owners and real estate developers. If my ancestors weren’t searching for Eldorado, then they were gauging what crops could bring the highest prices, learning how to grab cropland for next to nothing, and going to battle to ensure they could own their farm laborers rather than paying wages. They were misguided, certainly, but that doesn’t explain their fundamental immorality.

Some of the departed souls achieved wealth, for a generation or two. That’s the crucial takeaway. Wealth acquired at such a high cost to other human beings does not last. A generation or two after the Civil War, plantation owners’ offspring were living in poverty. Why would the wealthy hoarders care? They were dead.

Many of my ancestors also belonged to what ought to be called the warrior caste. Until the 20th century, at least they were compensated, albeit with stolen land. Today’s military personnel are lucky if they end their careers of service feeling their sacrifices were worthwhile. Some walk away with a deflating sense of having been used and discarded.

Simultaneously, my ancestors were predators and they were prey. Many of them couldn’t read or write, and it didn’t stop them from believing they could be rich or, failing that, superior.

Should I assume the propaganda swallowers couldn’t have known better? Many were illiterate, after all. They were dead by the time their accumulated wealth was gone. The lessons couldn’t be learned in real time. History was whitewashed. Is it fair to place blame? Do you worry about fake news, even though we’ve always had fake history? The market demand for lies is insatiable, because people are desperate to believe in their own superiority.

For All Souls Day, I have a lot to learn. I don’t want my descendants to remember me the way I’m thinking of many of my ancestors this week.

Beaufort National Cemetery oak

Almost every time I visit Beaufort National Cemetery, preparations are underway for another interment, yet the grounds are quiet and sunlight dapples the markers. It’s a tranquil resting place, as it should be.

Last night, after I gathered the information I needed for photographing six gravesites to fulfill requests that had been submitted to Find A Grave, I spent a little while expanding my family tree on Ancestry.com. One of my newest additions to the tree was a second cousin, six times removed, named George Washington Albritton. He was born in Georgia in 1815. At the age of about 49 he had a wife and nine children when he enlisted in the 1st Regiment Georgia Infantry Reserves led by Colonel William R. Symons. He was captured in the battles around Atlanta near the end of the Civil War and died of pneumonia, probably at the U.S. General Hospital, on Hilton Head Island. Coincidentally, he’s also one of the more than 21,000 men, women, and children buried in Beaufort National Cemetery.

The National Cemetery Administration says:

The original interments in the cemetery were men who died in the nearby Union hospitals during the occupation and were initially buried in several places—among them East Florida and Hilton Head. About 2,800 remains were removed from cemeteries in Millen and Lawton, Georgia, and reinterred in the national cemetery; 117 Confederate soldiers are also interred here.

Two of my distant relatives are buried in a cemetery containing 21,000 graves. Calculating the statistical probability is beyond my capability, but my intuition makes me willing to bet. If you go to a similarly sized burial ground in the country of your birth, and if, like mine, most of your ancestors have lived in your part of the world for about four centuries, then there’s a good possibility you’ll find two or more cousins buried there. We are more closely connected than we realize.