THE BLOG
09/11/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Genealogy -- America's Latest Obsession

Carved into the solid granite of a mountain in the Wasatch Mountain Range, located in the Little Cottonwood Canyon, 20 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah, is a place that stores information about the births, marriages and deaths, of more than 2 billion people. It's the largest single database on the details of the human race in the world.

Is this the United States government? Is this the Federal Bureau of Investigation? Is this the United Nations?

No, this is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The LDS Church, also known as the Mormons, has created a place to file away records about births, marriages, and deaths of 2 billion people. Buried 600 feet into the mountain, protected by two nine-ton and one 14-ton doors that were built to withstand a nuclear blast, the LDS church is squirreling away information at an incredible clip in a place called the Granite Mountain Vault.

Granite Vault

WikiMedia Commons

Granite Mountain (seen in the picture) is the place where the Mormons quarried the marble that they used to build their massive temples in Salt Lake.

Their goal is to hoard all of the available information on the ancestors of all of the members of the church -- and everyone else on the planet, if they can get away with it, based on their fundamental belief that sooner or later everyone will logically convert to the true church. Three billion pages of documents have been stored on 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. Twenty-five thousand volunteers are currently working to scan and index all of these documents, so that one day (and one day soon), you can access all of this data while sitting in your kitchen in your slippers with a laptop on your lap.

And how do they organize this army of volunteers to enter all of this data?

Genealogy is not just for your great aunt anymore. Genealogy is catching on as one of America's latest fads, with lots of 30- and 40-somethings tapping data into their genealogical programs.

The LDS church has a system, where you can access a website, and a scanned record of a list of recorded births from a 19th century church in rural Alabama or a list of recorded burials at an 18th century cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland, will pop up on your screen. Your job is to type in the names and dates as you see them.

Somewhere else on the planet, someone else is typing in the same information. If there is a discrepancy between what you and that other person typed in, the record is automatically forwarded to a genealogical expert, who makes a final decision about how the name should be recorded.

And it's not just the Mormons that are into genealogy. Millions of Americans outside the LDS church are trolling the scanned Census records, ship passenger lists and obituaries, looking for their ancestors. These people have grown to think that learning more about their families is not such a bad idea. In fact, for some, it has become an obsession.

As I was writing these words, I got an automated phone call from Bank of America. There was an unusual pattern of activity on my credit card, they said.

A helpful woman came on the line. "Did you make a charge to myfamily.com?"

That was the online company that allowed people to log in to their family website and update their family tree, share photos, and say happy birthday to their cousins.

"That's okay," I said.

"U.S. Search?"

"That's fine."

That was the online service that could track down people, even if the address you had on them was 20 years old. It would tell you if they paid their phone bill on time or spent time in jail, and give you an aerial photo of their house. Then you could cold call them and ask about your family ancestors.

"Vitalrecordcheck.com?"

That was where I had ordered the death certificate of one of my possible relatives online.

"That's fine."

"AWT.com? This looks like a genealogy site. $9.99 every month?"

"Yes, that's ancestry world tree. I have a regular subscription to that."

"Okay, well you have an account with a $17,000 limit, and we just want to make sure that the activity on the account is legitimate."

"Everyone looks fine, thanks for calling," I said.

As I hung up the phone I thought about what the woman had said. There is a pattern of unusual activity on your credit card.

I had had a sudden and unusual change in my purchasing behavior.

What did she think had happened? Had my credit card been stolen? Or had something happened to me that had caused me to change my buying behavior? What could that be?

An addiction?

I didn't know what else to call it.

As I lived through the various forms of what I later realized was an addiction, I became fascinated with the process. What drove millions of apparently sane people to spend hours of their free time scouring through musty record books and peering into the dark glass of a microfilm machine, when they could be outside having a good time? What was it that caused otherwise normal people to build websites with hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of names? Who didn't stop when they traced their ancestors, but kept on going until they had traced all of the descendants of their ancestors, or all of the descendants of that ancestor?

Was gazing into the past driven by the same forces that gives us pleasure at staring into the distance from a mountaintop, or while out at sea? Was it just narcissism, or vanity, or a desire to avoid thinking about the pain and unpleasantness of daily life?

Do we have an innate tendency to connect with the spirits of our ancestors, something called "ancestor worship," or "veneration of the ancestors," that goes by another name in Asian cultures, which is probably not translatable? Could this innate tendency be triggered into overdrive by a random encounter with rootsweb.com? Or are there forgotten souls of our ancestors, lonely in their abandoned cemeteries by the side of a country road, who want us to find them? Do they need our help, or do we need theirs? Or was all this genealogy stuff just a desire to connect with others, or to understand or feel more grounded in ones self? Could it be in part all of these things, and more?

Doug Bremner is a physician, professor and writer and author of The Fastest Growing Religion on Earth: How Genealogy Captured America.