Night of the Living Dead Relatives

by Kent Ballard

Sure, you’ve heard of “The Walking Dead.” You’ve probably also heard of “The Talking Dead,” unless you’ve been hiding in a drainage culvert for a few years. I have a different problem with the dead, and I can’t rid myself of them by popping them in the head with a crossbow. I’m besieged by the Annoying Dead. Thousands of them. Literally.

My wife got into genealogy a few years ago. She was dimly aware of some family spat over fifty years ago that caused one side of her family to split away from the rest. Most would consider that a blessing nowadays with the high cost of Christmas cards, but not her. Never one to let sleeping dogs lie, she began tracking them all down. From that it was a natural step into genealogy, I suppose, and within months she was figuratively digging up dead relatives everywhere in the county.

She’s traced them back to Europe, back through the centuries. I think must have at least three Internet servers dedicated to her by now. They’ve actually made her an “arbiter.” When two researchers can’t agree on what ancient Uncle Clem’s third daughter’s second married name was, they hand all the information to one of their arbiters and they look at all the records and have the final say.

She began to research my relatives too, but I think she’s given that up as a bad job. Every so often she’d rush into the room and breathlessly announce that I was a direct descendant of King Richard III. “Oh great,” I’d say, “how much did he leave me?” At first it was difficult for her to accurately measure my lack of interest, which was total. “How’s old Dick doing these days? I haven’t heard from him for a while. Oh wait—he’s dead, isn’t he? Too bad, the old despot.” It was the same on the night she traced my ancestry to Charlemagne. I smiled widely and said, “Well, sure. I told you about me and Charley before. We used to get drunk and go swimming in rock quarries, bobbing for catfish.”

This may sound cruel, but believe me if it happened to you five or six times a week over a period of months you’d do the same or worse. For all I know she’s traced me back to Moses or Buddha and won’t tell me just for spite now. Or maybe she just became depressed finding so many horse thieves, gunslingers, and train robbers among my kin. Whatever, she seems to have stopped hunting down my side of the family.

Even so, she’d be beside herself with joy at finding one of her own lost relatives. “Honey, I found William Pratt!”

“Who the hell is William Pratt and what did you find him doing?”

She’d launch into some long tale about an old geezer who died before the Civil War. When she gave the date of his death, I’d look at her grimly and say, “He’s dead, Jim,” and go on about my business. Then, helpfully, I’d stick my head back into her office a few minutes later and ask, “1858? You say he died in 1858? Hmm…yeah, that makes sense. There was an epidemic of syphilis that swept through the Dakotas in ’58. Killed thousands of pioneers. That was before penicillin, you know…”

I never should have taught her how to cuss. Her language can be awful at times. That was a mistake on the same level as teaching my first wife how to shoot. Sometimes it’s advisable to think things through first.

She’s not into spiritualism or mediums or trying to contact the dead. That explains why I haven’t had her locked up. But otherwise she lives and breathes dead people. She knows stories from their lives. To her they’re not merely names in an old census report, or faded faces in ancient photographs or tin-types. I believe she could sit down with most of them and in ten minutes be talking merrily with them, swapping old family stories. That is, if they weren’t dead. I’d wonder about her mental health, hanging around all those family members who have joined the choir invisible, but I have my odd habits too. Running the pros and cons through my mind, I came to the conclusion that the strange things I do far outweigh her quirks and if anyone was to be taken away in a straight jacket, it’d be me. Best not to risk it.

But I’m serious about her hobby with the dead. She has collected birth and death dates, plus any information and available photos of gravestones, on eleven thousand, seven hundred and some odd of her relatives. She’s printing these into hand-bound books. The first one has 420 pages. She figures on making ten more before she finishes. I told her I didn’t think it was physically possible for one person to have that many relatives, but she just laughed. “Well, some are in-laws, some are children. Then there are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and their spouses…”

She’s traced tombstones through “Find-A-Grave.” I used to think that was just a kinky site for Elvis fans or old stoners who still believe Jim Morrison is alive. Nope. They have a large and active group of graveyard detectives scouting in every state. My wife has taken cameras and traveled an hour or so to different graveyards to photograph stones for people who have requested them. Go figure. If someone asked me to go a graveyard to take pictures I’d claim that I did but they all turned out black, just to freak them out.

I guess love allows us to simply get over another person’s odd habits. As long as she doesn’t start floating around the house, I can deal with her armies of the dead. She doesn’t complain when I can’t sleep and take an hour or two’s walk through the forest that surrounds our house in the middle of the night. Some folks might find that creepy, too. I’ve listened to her explain the importance of all her research several times. I still don’t understand it. She just does that. And I love her.

But…I will have my vengeance.

When I have ceased to be, when I have left this veil of tears, I’ve made arrangements to donate my skin and vital organs to anyone who can get some use out of them. That won’t leave much, and the remnants will be cremated. Out in our woods, there’s this certain hill, and on it this certain tree, and my final wish is to have my ashes scattered there. No tombstone, no marker of any kind.

My family has all agreed to this, but asked why? I told them if any of my descendants become genealogists, they’ll find plenty of records that I once existed, but they will all go mad looking for my gravestone.

12 thoughts on “Night of the Living Dead Relatives

  1. My first wife got into genealogy back when we were still married. I lost count of the number of trips we made to various libraries looking through old microfiche records. I have to admit that some if it was damn interesting, like the fact that I could trace my family tree back to the American Revolution. Probably the most interesting thing I ever found about my ancestors (or at least my family namesake) was a gravestone on Boot Hill in Dodge City, Kansas for a fine, upstanding citizen by the name of Pecos Joe Bates who was hung for stealing horses. I don’t know if old Pecos Joe was an actual ancestor, but given the history of some of my known ancestors, it would not surprise me.
    I suppose genealogy is fairly innocuous as hobbies go. It could be worse. She could decide to begin sending microwave signals to Ursa Major in search of extraterrestrials. That would not only cost a lot of moolah but could also garner the undivided attention of elements in our own sphere with whom you don’t want to associate. Cut the girl some slack.

    • Dave, my Mom got into this too, but that was in the pre-computer days. I think my Dad would have thrown it through the window if she could have researched 24/7.

      There’s no way I’d allow her to signal ETs. I agree with Stephen Hawking–don’t invite neighbors over that you don’t know. If they could even get here that means they could whip us without trying.

      • Dittos on the signaling ET thing, but can you be absolutely certain that all those long dead individuals are not now among those self-same ETs? Since no one I know has ever actually seen Heaven, no one can be sure that Heaven isn’t in fact a genormous Mother Ship floating among the cosmos gathering the souls of our dear departed. I probably read way too much sci-fi and speculative theories, but I can’t claim that my notion is wrong. I suppose if her centuries old ancestors one day show up at your doorstep demanding to be let in to meet the family, I’ll be proven right, but I really hope not.

        • I sure hope you’re wrong too. My hereafter could be a battered old Gemini space capsule. With Gilbert Gottfried in the co-pilot’s seat. For eternity. Brrrrrrr…

    • Thanks, Don. I tried to take an old lemon and make a whiskey sour out of it. You’ll never guess what she’s doing while I’m typing this. Yup. Digging up another regiment of the dead. If we were ever guest stars on “The Walking Dead” I’d shoot her first.

    • A mouthful of coffee, Susan? I’ve missed many mouthfuls of food due to her getting on a roll with the dear departed. Eating my own cooking should be made illegal. It probably already is if I were to try to serve it to someone else. She’s a little young, but she would have made a great groupie with the Alice Cooper tour.

  2. I just about lost a mouthful of coffee reading Susan Kelly’s reply! That is a great write Kent. The Mormon’s really go for this stuff too. Before they ex-communicated me for marrying a Catholic I was dreading the whole idea of having to do this kind of work. I was relieved to be ex-d out if for no other reason.
    But my uncle did the work and sent me a copy. The most interesting part of it was how my tribe only lost a few children in infancy and that most of us had smaller families, and many never married. I liked that. Also, that we hailed originally from Ireland and not the lie, Scotland.
    But this is one very weird thing that happened recently when looking through some old tintypes that I’d been left by my dead mother. Another dead-person creeping back in story. I opened this little tintype and saw my own self in the image of a girl, around fifteen yrs of age, who I can not know. It jolted my head backwards! Genetics are amazing.
    Otherwise, hilarious writing as always. Thank you.

    • Kathleen, late some night prop that tintype up by your bed and listen to it. It probably IS you. Time travel makes as much sense to me as going around pestering dead people about who they were and what they did and what their breeding habits were.

      Look at this from the other side. You’ve lived your life, experienced all the highs and lows and loves and losses, and now you’re safely beyond this realm. But wait! What’s that? Oh dear, it’s another damned genealogist poking into your business. Where ya from? When were you born? Who’d you marry? How many kids did you have? It be like waking up with a census taker standing over your bed. If anyone tries that with me, I’m going into serious haunting mode pretty quickly.

  3. Cemeteries and geneologist are collaboratively, slowly, but surely, going high-tech. In part thanks to your wife and her similarly afflicted ancestry buffs. Mapping and documenting an online searchable database. In time, even your ashes’ location will be noted for posterity.

    I keep half-expecting to be contacted by descendents of my grandfather’s second family looking for their roots. My son found that offshoot in a high school homework assignment. He asked me what he should do. I told him to quit digging. No upside…

    Still and all, if your wife’s pursuits bring her enjoyment, keep your notions to yourself. If it’s important to her, indulge her, support and encourage. There’s plenty of upside to that.

    • Yeow, Bill! Your grandfather’s second family? I concur with you. Don’t touch that with a stick. Just walk away and pretend you never saw it.

      I could understand loosing my wife to another guy. But loosing her to a horde of lifeless, deceased, departed, brain-dead, inanimate, moldy, cadavers who have already been launched into eternity is something I do not know how to compete with. I used to keep a small candle of hope in my heart that sooner or later she would dig up so many bastards, harlots, simple-minded louts, perverts, vandals and libertines that she’d become disgusted enough to stop.

      She told me she already found all of them. On my side of the family.

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