Not long ago, I attended the funeral of a relative. He died in 1686.
As I sat outside that tiny old Virginia church, under a tent in the pouring rain, the eulogy -- the same one said at his first funeral there 323 years ago -- made me realize that my ancestor had had his faults. Plenty of 'em. Where I had expected a bunch of boasting to pump up the proud bereaved, this eulogy minced few words.
The Honorable Joseph Bridger had been a political bigwig and owner of all that the eye can see in southeastern Virginia. A few hundred of my fellow descendants had come in from across the country to pay respects to a man they never knew, who had long been little more than the name at the top of a family tree.
Bridger had been dug up a few months earlier by anthropologists curious about the health and well-being of America's first colonialists for an upcoming exhibit at The Smithsonian Institution. After the scientists had picked over his remains, this re-funeral -- with many mourners again dressed in black -- was to help usher him back into the grave.
It turned out that while Bridger had deftly helped manage the affairs of Virginia for King Charles II, he was also "a man of strong emotions and given to angry outbursts." I was delighted to hear it. He could be a generous man but, as I would learn later, he also led wars against the Indians, owned slaves, sued his own father-in-law over land rights, disinherited his son for siding with his enemies, and finally fled into exile.
Instead of the portrait of an illustrious family member who could do no wrong, who made the rest of us feel unworthy to carry his genes, we got a glimpse of the living, breathing man, who had lived fully and made plenty of mistakes. And it was through knowing his humanity, rather than by blood, that I suddenly felt directly related to this Joseph Bridger and all of those mostly unknown relatives around me.
Which made me think -- briefly -- about my own eulogy. I assume I'm far from the grave right now but if and when I should one day need words said over my casket, I would ask my family to put not just my virtues out there but also my warts. There would be nothing I could do about them by then anyway and for the sake of truth and honesty, I would want to be remembered as a woman who lived fully but made her own share of blunders along the way. May you rest in peace, Granddaddy Bridger.
(Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake opens at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington on February 7th.)