Learn from Ken Burns How to Wake the Dead

We tell stories to continue ourselves. We all think an exception is going to be made in our case, and we’re going to live forever. And being a human is actually arriving at the understanding that that’s not going to be. Story is there to just remind us that it’s just OK.

Thus concludes Ken Burns in Redglass Pictures‘ recent short documentary, Ken Burns: On Story, in which the man behind some of the best documentaries of our times steps in front of the camera to explain why he tells historical stories.  “Waking the dead,” he calls it, drawing a direct connection between his mourning process for his mother, who died when he was 11, and his drive to bring historical figures to life.

So much of what he says resonates with why I believe so strongly in learning one’s family history.  We genealogists can also wake the dead by finding every trace our forebears left of themselves, from memories that were passed down, to life changes that the government documented, and all the treasured artifacts that someone preserved in between.  Our “cast” may be less illustrious, primarily populated by people who would otherwise remain in obscurity,  but when we do our best work, when we transcend the mere interpretation of findings to understand the complicated nature of the people who left these traces, then we are getting at the emotional truths that matter most.  “Truth is, we hope, a byproduct of our best stories,” Burns posits, “and yet, an emotional truth is something you have to build.”  The effort is as required in genealogy as in documentary film.

But why bother?  History can be adequately conveyed through a textbook and family history through a tree.  Why must we coalesce all these facts into a story, when the work of uncovering these facts is hard enough?  Burns gives the answer when he says that “the kind of narrative that [he subscribes] trusts in the possibility that people could change.”  By people, he means as much the historical characters who lived through turbulent times as us viewers who have as much room to evolve in our own era through a change in perspective and broadening of context.

The real genuine, stories are about one and one equaling three…The things that matter most to us — some people call it love, some people call it God, some people call it reason — is (sic) that other thing, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  And that’s the three.

In the case of genealogy, grandma may have gotten on a ship and sailed for America, where she met grandpa and gave birth to father, but the underlying reasons why she immigrated and chose grandpa, as well as the nature of the world she left and the one she brought father into:  these comprise the three in genealogy.  It’s meaning — it’s context — it’s Burns’ emotional truth plus genealogists’ family legacy.  It’s why it matters that we genealogists take the time to tell stories.

(Or watch here.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *