A few days ago, while digging through some boxes of assorted junk, I came across an envelope of old family photos. I opened it up and flipped through the pictures, expecting to see the same familiar images I’ve seen a hundred times, but instead I was surprised. I’d never seen these pictures before. These were the apocrypha to the canon of photos selected to be preserved in family albums. After repeated viewings over the years, I had apparently developed an emotional immunity to the album pictures. These newly discovered pictures, on the other hand, brought on the kind of sentimental nostalgia normally reserved for weddings and funerals.
My mother had carefully notated the back of each picture with the subjects’ names and ages–a practice she later abandoned. “MC (5), blowing out candles.” “MC (5) sharing watermelon with Brian (3).” “MC (5) holding up fish he caught.” The images were mostly of two particularly camera-worth events: birthdays and camping trips. Here’s Dad (beardless Dad!) with a loaded baby carrier on his back, posing on a hiking trail. Here’s Mom and Aunt Lisa; each with broad grins; each holding their newborn daughter. Here’s David, tearing off the wrapping paper of his brand new, high tech Atari 2600. Here’s Jeff, doing a wheelie on his bike, followed by MC, whose bike is held up by training wheels.
This was our family. I say “was,” because this family no longer exists. Day followed day, month followed month, and year followed year until gradually those relationships and interpersonal dynamics dissolved into the ether. The atomized family unit, composed of Father, Mother, and Children has evolved and splintered into entirely new family units. If you cut the limbs off certain species of starfish, each limb with regenerate an entirely new starfish. Like the starfish, each part of my family has broken off and become a new whole. And just like the starfish, the original unit has been destroyed in the process.
Looking at these old pictures, I’m reminded that “family” is a life phase. It’s an abstraction, based on the relationships of the participants. When those relationships evolve–when the roles that define the family are no longer relevant–the life phase ends. The family ends. Just like individual persons, families are mortal.
So when a Mormon tells you that families can be forever, he’s talking gibberish. Families can’t even survive time, let alone eternity. A family dies long before the people who made up that family pass away. It makes little sense to speak of families persisting in some imaginary future afterlife.