Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Grateful Dead and Genealogy

If you are a bluegrass fan, you probably already know that the lead vocal and guitarist for the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, was a fabulous bluegrass and folk musician. But by now, you are probably skipping ahead in this post to find the connection between the Grateful Dead and genealogy. Do you know where the name came from? Here is the explanation from Wikipedia:
The name "Grateful Dead" was chosen from a dictionary. According to Phil Lesh, in his biography (pp. 62), "...[Jerry Garcia] picked up an old Britannica World Language Dictionary...[and]...In that silvery elf-voice he said to me, 'Hey, man, how about the Grateful Dead?'" The definition there was "the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial." According to Alan Trist, director of the Grateful Dead's music publisher company Ice Nine, Garcia found the name in the Funk & Wagnalls Folklore Dictionary, when his finger landed on that phrase while playing a game of "dictionary".
 OK, so there are two conflicting accounts. So what? Here is another explanation from the online Encyclopedia Britannica:
[The grateful dead is defined] in folktales of many cultures, [as] the spirit of a deceased person who bestows benefits on the one responsible for his burial. In the prototypical story, the protagonist is a traveler who encounters the corpse of a debtor, to whom the honour of proper burial has been denied. After the traveler satisfies the debt, or, in some versions, pays for the burial, he goes on his way. In another version of the story, burial is prescribed for religious reasons but prohibited by civil authorities. It is this version that forms the theme of the apocryphal Book of Tobit in the Old Testament.
The hero is soon joined by another traveler (sometimes in the form of an animal, or, in the story of Tobit, an angel), who helps him in a dramatic way. In some stories the companion saves the hero’s life; in others he helps him gain a prize. In many versions, the companion offers to aid the hero, but only on condition that they divide the prize. Then, as the hero is about to comply, the companion reveals himself as the grateful spirit of the deceased whom the hero helped to bury. [text in brackets added for clarification].
So what if your ancestor died a pauper and was either not buried or was buried in a pauper's grave? Will the burial record be recorded? Will there be a record of the name of the deceased? In working through over 10,000 Mesa, Arizona City Cemetery records, I found a significant number of pauper burials. In a few cases, the bodies were found "out in the desert" and were never identified. In other cases, the individual's burial was paid for by a church or a relative. In most cases, there was a name attached to the burial, but not always.

Why is this important to know? There are circumstances that can occur in an ancestor's life that will put them beyond the pale of record keeping. Death in the wilderness, never witnessed and never recorded, is not going to be part of any genealogical record. How would you know that this was the case? One example, I found recently, was a widow's application for a Civil War pension, where the assets of the widow were listed as "No personal or real property." If the widow was in such a penurious position, it is likely that her husband had little or no property also. Poverty did and does exist. Of course, we would all like to find the rich relative (especially is there is an inheritance) but poverty is much more common. In many cases paupers burials were recorded but there was no gravemarker.

A search in the Family History Library Catalog on for the keyword "pauper's" shows 409 results. In many instances, as I have learned, these records my reside only in the cemetery and have never been transcribed or digitized. So there are likely many, many times more records that just those recorded in Catalog. has far fewer records that appear in a search for "pauper" or "pauper's" but this likely reflects my opinion that these records are sitting out there in the cemeteries and have never been transcribed or otherwise recorded. In many instances, the pauper's graves were unmarked but recorded.

So, whenever you hear about the Grateful Dead, remember the pauper's graves and the need to go to the cemetery to find the information about the burials. 

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