History department professor Amy Harris told stories of dead cats and people to teach that many are missing the point with family history work at Tuesday’s BYU Forum. 

“I’m going to tell you two stories today; a short one about dead cats and a long one about dead people,” said Harris.

As a child, Harris had many pet cats that passed away. Her mother reassured her that she would be reunited with her pets in heaven one day. Harris had several family members pass away before her birth and was taught that she would meet these people in the afterlife.

Harris’s research focuses on the impact of relationships.

“I’ve spent my entire adult life studying relationships, particularly family relationships, and the power they have, for good or ill, to shape social, economic, religious, political, material, and emotional possibilities and realities,” Harris said.

Harris shared the story of a dead person named William Dade. He lived in the 1700s and was known, mostly by historians, for including more information in the Church of England’s parish registries. Harris pointed out this decision showed Dade thought with genealogical consciousness.

“Genealogical consciousness means seeing how past, present, and future are connected, again not in an abstract sense, but in the lived reality of actual, thinking, feeling people — and how they and we are connected over time and space,” said Harris.

Harris said genealogical consciousness reflects two defining human abilities: to imagine the future and to care about and cooperate with strangers.

“We are built to cooperate with and belong to not just our kin but with all humanity,” said Harris.

Many types of researchers concluded that loving others makes life meaningful, and it’s the purpose of life, said Harris.

Harris said that within the Latter-day Saint population, there is genealogical knowledge but not enough genealogical consciousness.

“We race to find more names and make the consumption of more information more important than getting to know those who held the names we seek,” said Harris.

Harris also cautioned that learning about ancestors to form a sense of personal identity is also missing the point. That motive leads people to think their ancestors were better, and exclude other’s ancestors. This results in people slipping into tribalism, racism, nationalism and other us vs. them-isms.

“Genealogical consciousness, however, doesn’t just avoid these pitfalls, it prevents them. Has the power to obliterate them — to completely dissolve the destructive boundaries between us and them. To starkly remind that there is no them, there is only us. To pull people together despite differences,” said Harris.

Next Devotional: Paul Caldarella, Associate Professor in the McKay School of Education

Paul Caldarella, associate professor in the McKay School of Education, will deliver the Devotional address on Tuesday, July 25, at 11:05 a.m. in the de Jong Concert Hall.

Caldarella's remarks will be broadcast live on BYUtv, BYUtv.org (and archived for on-demand streaming), KBYU-TV 11, Classical 89 FM, BYU Radio, and will be archived on speeches.byu.edu.