Last updated on July 8, 2023
It is often said: “You die twice. First when you stop breathing. Second when somebody mentions your name for the last time.” The origin of this saying is murky and consequentially is attributed to everything from the Ancient Egyptians to the Jewish people to Ernest Hemmingway to pop artist Banksy. Regardless of its origin, the concept behind it under-girds all of these cultural rituals that honor the dead: We must not forget their names lest they die to total oblivion. I resonate with this saying in a profound way. I am losing more and more loved ones in my life. I’ve lost my connections to them in the conscious world, leaving me with a hard question. Having experienced the love of family and friends for almost seven decades, how can these beautiful and meaningful connections be lost to time? My question led me to two lines from poetry and scripture.
The first is from the first stanza of Nothing Will Die, a poem of affirmation by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.
The second is commonly paraphrased from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament as:
“Death is stronger than life. But love is stronger than death.”
I find these lines so reassuring and hopeful in the face of feeling separation from loved ones to death, I want to use them as epitaphs. Indeed, the Song of Solomon passage is used as an epitaph in the famous Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, engraved in stone as:
La morte è più forte della vita
Ma l’amore è più forte della la morte
The quote is ingeniously engraved around the sides of a flat slab headstone that begins and ends with the same engraved “LA MORTE,” forming an endless circle of affirmation of love conquering death as you walk around the grave. It was featured in Arthur Dark’s Hollywood Graveyard video exploration of Italy:
It is with these two affirmations in mind that I write this piece, Anamnesis, in tribute to our departed family and ancestors in the fervent belief that we will meet again and my efforts with anamnesis will make that reunion possible. Logical, it is not. Rather, it is a visceral conviction of the heart.
I first encountered the word, Anamnesis, the day before Memorial Day in 2022. In her Sunday sermon, the Rev. Dr. LaTaunya Bynum described it as “refusing to forget.” As our family’s genealogist, I resonated with her sermon and, specifically, her use of the word. I vividly remember the Memorial Day observances of my youth. In those days, it was not another chance to eat too much, drink too much, and party on the third day of a three-day weekend. It was a solemn day when people honored those who had fallen and a traditional opportunity to remember family ancestors and honor them by cleaning and decorating their graves.
Indeed, the existence of a day dedicated to honoring ancestors in this manner is common across many cultures. In Mexico, graves are cleaned and decorated in preparation of Día de Muertos on November 1st through November 2nd. Families create ofrendas – essentially altars – with photos and favorite foods of their loved ones. The French people do the same cleaning and decorating on October 31st in preparation of the November 1st All Saints Day. In China, the Qingming festival, meaning Pure Brightness Festival, is celebrated on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. People sweep and decorate graves, burn incense and paper money, and make food offerings, all to honor their deceased ancestors. Buddhists in Japan honor ancestors on Obon during the late summer by traveling to hometowns, spending time with family, doing traditional dance, and lighting lanterns and bonfires to guide spirits back to the afterlife. Across cultures of the world, people continue to engage in anamnesis in forms of rituals and traditions that serve the same purpose: a refusal to forget.
We are forged from the fires our ancestors endured
If you only look back on your family’s ancestral names, birth dates, death dates, and genealogical relationships, you may find yourself bored – and that should not be surprising. Like being a guest in a two-hour family slide show in the dark, you will struggle finding enough interest to keep from yawning, even though it’s your family in the show.
Penetrate the façade of data, seek out the anecdotes, put the jigsaw pieces of ancestors together, and you will uncover stories about your own family that could be a best-selling novel or an award-winning screen play. Because those amazing stories are there, hidden behind apocryphal legends, secrets not told, and evidence of love not recorded. Once you begin to reveal their stories, your ancestors will come alive in your mind as snapshots – even movie clips – of the people they were in life and their graves will become touchstones to the lives they lived. In observing anamnesis, you will see yourself as a person forged from the fires of the joys they shared and hardships they endured. It’s inevitable, even for those among us who “choose” a family. You will see it in photographs of family with striking resemblances that skip generations. And the evidence that has emerged from retrospective twin studies has revealed that genetic influence goes well beyond facial similarity. We cannot escape our family heritage any more than our civilization can escape the records of Clio, the Muse of History.
My family, a heritage of refugees
My family surname is Griesemer. Nowhere in the United States is the Griesemer name so well-known as it is in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The “Griesemer Angel” of Greenwood Cemetery in Allentown stands in monumental tribute to our family name to this day. Reminiscent, perhaps, of the line of kings of JRR Tolkien’s imagining? Hardly. The Griesemers were more like “Hobbits of Pennsylvania,” unassuming quiet people who were basically farmers.
To get a sense of the significance of the Griesemer Angel, one has to go back to 1572 and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the event that forced our ancestors to be among the 200,000 Huguenot refugees who fled France. We have no idea how many of them were killed. But the family, originally having lived in the Palatine area of France, fled and landed on the eastern side of the Rhine River in Germany. The great first generation patriarch of the family was John Valentine Griesemer, who crossed the Atlantic in with his wife and five children onboard the sailing ship, the Thistle of Glasgow, arriving in Philadelphia in 1773.
It is at Greenwood Cemetery where most of my family is buried, including my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and several great uncles and great aunts. The cemetery itself was owned and operated by David Griesemer, my great grandfather, until his death in 1903. The last time I visited was to bury my mother in 2017. It had been my intention to return to honor them in the anamnesis tradition. But the pandemic came hard upon us all and we have not been able to return since.
Meanwhile, I continue to research the roots of my father’s family. From there, I am writing the stories of their lives, starting with my parent’s amazing story and their connection to the tragic story of my grandfather’s untimely death and his influence in our family as the Ghost in the Glass. When I return again, I plan to have a military marker placed for my father to recognize his service in the United States Army during World War II.
Because my mother is a descendant of the Jewish diaspora of Spain and Portugal, her family is significantly harder to trace and even more difficult to visit. Over five centuries, her family’s surname changed, children have been given identical first names as ancestors, records have been lost, and endogamy has been pervasive – all contributing to making the genealogical research very difficult. Nonetheless, their history is rich and the heirloom photos I have of them are beautiful! I have more wedding portraits in my mother’s family than I do in any other branch that I’m researching. One day I plan to visit those who are interred in France, their refugee home, to lay stones in participation in the mitzvah of burial, an important Jewish ritual of anamnesis.
Sheryl’s family, a heritage of pioneers
In 2009, Sheryl and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She was returning to her ancestral home. I was embarking on a new home 3,000 miles away from where I was born. I began my interest in family genealogy in 2013. Within five years, I was looking at Sheryl’s family and uncovering her family’s rich ancestral history in California that dates back to the gold rush and the great western expansion. Sheryl had inherited impressive stashes of heirloom photos and family documents. The majority of these heirlooms point back to the town of Lockeford in California’s San Joaquin County, where Sheryl grew up. Whenever we can, Sheryl and I reawaken her family’s Memorial Day tradition of decorating family graves in the location where most of them are buried: Harmony Grove Cemetery of Lockeford.
Harmony Grove is a historic pioneer cemetery that formed in California’s early years as a state, after the completion of Harmony Grove Church, built in 1862. Sheryl has ancestors buried here going back five generations – including some the earliest settlers in San Joaquin County. In 2018, we did our first major observance of anamnesis for her family. We have returned almost every year at the end of May.
I did a first pass at cleaning headstones in 2023 with D2 biological solution and added military markers for Sheryl’s grandfather, uncle, and first cousin once removed. It was gratifying to see the stones looking better and the veterans in Sheryl’s family recognized for their service.
When we first went in 2013, I was determined to find Sheryl’s two-times great grandmother, Martha “Mattie” Jane Givens, a native of Kentucky. Known as “Grandma Christian” in Sheryl’s family, Mattie had married John Young of Kentucky only to lose him shortly after the Civil War, leaving her a widow with three young children. In the winter of 1871, Mattie bravely traveled west via rail with her three children in tow, enduring being snowbound on the train near Cheyenne, Wyoming. She and her children survived the ordeal and arrived in California sometime around Christmas. By the following year, she married her cousin, James Laird Christian and they went on to have two more children. As a California pioneer woman, Mattie is a larger-than-life figure in the many families descended from her.
Sheryl’s late uncle Millard commissioned a portrait of Mattie by an artist who interpreted it from an original daguerreotype. As long as I have known Sheryl, the large portrait of “Grandma Christian” has always hung in her study, inspiring her to move past difficult times with faith and commitment, just as Mattie did in 1871. As with my parents’ amazing life journey, Mattie Christian’s life needs to be remembered.
Sheryl’s Irish roots descend from first generation immigrant, Francis Sheridan. While I don’t have records of his immigration, it is likely that he was among the thousands who fled to North America to escape the Great Potato Famine. Francis arrived in California in 1852, the same year as his future bride, Isabella Agnes Epperly.
Isabella arrived in California after making the perilous trip from Missouri via covered wagon with her family, passing over the Sierras on the Silver Lake Trail. She was only four years old. Francis and Isabella married in 1865, eventually settling in Lockeford. Isabella bore four girls and one boy to Francis. She out lived her husband by more than 30 years and became one of the most notable pioneer women of San Joaquin County. Sadly, it meant that she endured experiencing the loss of her only son, Francis Jr., and one of her daughters, Cora Belle.
Isabella, Francis, and their young son Francis Jr. are buried in a large family plot in San Joaquin Catholic Cemetery, which adjoins Harmony Grove. The plot remains mostly empty to this day. As with so many family plots, there is no guarantee that future generations will use them. Despite its large size, I had a very difficult time finding it in 2018. The headstones are set flush to the plot’s concrete slab and many years of neglect allowed blown soil to obscure their names. But I persisted in searching and, almost by chance, I spotted the Sheridan name at the edge of the plot. Then, after expending considerable effort sweeping, I uncovered the headstones of Francis and Isabella. This year, I uncovered Francis Jr. Each year, Sheryl has added flowers to the large urn that is centered on the plot.
The soil encroachment will continue to be an issue as soil behind the slab is higher than the slab itself. However, the head of the Harmony Grove Cemetery Volunteers assured us that she will be looking into installing a row of stones to stop the encroachment. She also told me that she wants to look into adding standing headstones for the graves.
Pioneer cemeteries like Harmony Grove depend entirely on volunteers and donations. We are grateful to her and her volunteers for doing what they can to preserve the cemetery. In addition to contributing, we are looking into working with the volunteer organization to seek ways to engage the Scouts to assist with preservation (e.g. merit badges) and starting initiatives to enlist people to “adopt” family plots that would otherwise fall into neglect.
More to come…