I am named after the daughter my father lost
October 31, 2015 9:34 PM   Subscribe

"What's in a Necronym?" by Jeannie Vanasco: "Whether the knowledge affected van Gogh—that he shared both his name and birthday with a dead sibling—remains unknown, the guide said. 'Does anyone have any questions?' he asked. My mind filled with loud, hurried thoughts and just as suddenly emptied, like a flock of birds scattering from a field."

Related links: Previously: "The Glass Eye" by Jeannie Vanasco.
posted by Monsieur Caution (27 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Aphex Twin (Richard D James) has the same deal. The cover art for his Girl / Boy EP is a photo of his brother's grave.
posted by aubilenon at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

Wheatfield with Crows, which I am guessing the pullquoted bit is referencing.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:28 PM on October 31, 2015

I'm named after a dead cousin, the last of his line, who died as a young adult. I've known since I was old enough to understand. I don't recommend it.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:21 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife was pregnant with our child when her cousin passed away unexpectedly. When our child was born, she wanted to use one of her cousin's characters in his name. Her mother said it would be bad luck, though.
posted by oheso at 1:32 AM on November 1, 2015

In the old days when so many children died I think re-using a name was just a matter of not having to think of another. It seems clear there's a lot more going on here and I find it difficult not to blame her father. Clearly he had his own problems, but dumping them on your child (with a little extra mystery and guilt) is hard to excuse.
posted by Segundus at 1:38 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know, it seems that apart from the name he didn't want Jeannie to even know about Jeanne. I wonder if he regretted the decision to re-use the name.

Thanks, Monsieur Caution, for linking to all the works referenced in the article.
posted by harriet vane at 2:02 AM on November 1, 2015

I'm very saddened that Bungener's book, Keeping Vigil Over the Body of My Child: Three Days in the Life of a Father, does not seem to be available in English.

Thanks for sharing this, such a beautiful, wistful story. Due to my semi-irrational, knee-jerk dislike of The Believer magazine, I would've never encountered it.
posted by procrastinator at 3:15 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Very moving story. That Millet painting, Angelus...it's something.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:00 AM on November 1, 2015

One of my ancestors had a sister, whose name was Ethel. As was the custom at the time, when Ethel got engaged it was a long engagement. When she was in her thirties, her betrothed - I have no idea what HIS name was - got sent overseas to the Boer War where he was killed. As a result Ethel never married and never had children.

Ethel is a family name. It was my grandmother's first name, and my mother's middle name. I was told this was so that Ethel would have a legacy to replace the descendants that never were. In the fullness of time when I had a daughter I gave it to her as her first middle name, along with the name of my aunt Pearl who died as a toddler in the influenza pandemic while her father who never got to see here was serving in Europe during WWI before my father was ever born.

It never occurred to me that my daughter would feel it was creepy or that her names were shop-soiled. I thought of it as granting her a part of her heritage and honouring the tragedies of the past. Of course I gave her her own uncommon first name and a few other back up middle names. I had some qualms about using such an un-cool name as Ethel as first middle name so I explained to my daughter that she had so many middle names so that she could pick and choose and keep only the names she wanted. The idea was that she would actually probably stick to only her three favourite names as first middle and last but my kids seem to like have seven names or so apiece. Perhaps giving them extras helped make up for the morbid nature of the necronyms.

I really love that word: necronym.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:07 AM on November 1, 2015 [11 favorites]

We have a similar legacy naming tradition in our family, Jane the Brown. It's like an honor for us. I can see how it could be creepy depending on the context but we're all very proud of it.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:43 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's an Ashkenazi tradition to name a newborn after a deceased relative, in order to remember and honor the deceased. There is an inclination to take only the first letter of the name of the deceased person, and use another name with this letter for the newborn child. The naming convention isn't gender-specific, either. A sense of reanimation for the person isn't the goal.

Vanasco's essay is beautifully written and highly evocative. I hope she finds an enduring balance among her thoughts.
posted by datawrangler at 4:58 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for sharing this... it touched two points in my life in an enlightening manner.

Within a year after the death of my son, there were two instances in which someone contacted me to say "I've named my newborn son Sean." The first was a nephew, whose wife was Jewish and was following a tradition that has been passed down, as best as I know, from the Ashkenazi Jews. The second was a former girlfriend of my son's, a young women whom we had taken into our home for a while due to struggles in her own home, and what we perceived as a dangerous (to her) situation due to her mother's live-in boyfriend. She and my son had not been in a relationship for several years, but were still very good friends at the time of his death.

In both cases I was honored. Over time I wondered what these young men would think and feel about the history of their names. Sadly, I've lost touch with those individuals, who would now be young men. The linked story will cause me to wonder if seeking them out would be serve a positive purpose, for me OR for them.

The second point was the legacy left by my own father, who died when I was six months old. I was the only son.. following in the footsteps of that man, being compared, being handed his life in bits and pieces over the years. I wasn't given his first name, but his last name will forever connect us.

Thanks for the article, it was very well written...much to think about....
posted by HuronBob at 5:21 AM on November 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

My cousin was killed by a bomb when she was three. When her sister had her first daughter she gave her the name. I think she felt it was honouring her dead sister, and her daughter (who's 17 now) has always had a great attachment to the aunt she never knew. But the rest of us always thought it was a little...I don't really know what the feeling is, but not right, somehow. Maybe because the death was in tragic circumstances. I always wondered how my own aunt and uncle - the parents of the dead child - felt every time they said the name. Maybe it was a painful, constant reminder of the tragedy, or maybe it gave the name a new, happier association with their granddaughter. Maybe both. I've never heard the word necronym before and it's interesting to know it's a thing that makes sense of what my cousin did. Moving article, thanks for the post.
posted by billiebee at 5:23 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm an Ashkenazi Jew, so I'm named after a dead relative, and it's fine and nice and I don't feel haunted by it at all. But my father's first cousins died in the Holocaust when they were children, and my mom said that she and my dad considered for about 5 seconds naming me or my siblings for them and then immediately decided that was way too big a burden to put on a child. There's a real difference between being named for your mother's beloved grandmother, as I am, and being named for a sibling whose death so shattered your father that he couldn't ever bring himself to talk about it. And I guess that's another thing about her name: it meant that her father kind of couldn't talk about Jeanne with her without revealing the creepy detail of the name, which made it harder to talk about it even if he'd wanted to. And I don't think that unspeakable secrets are healthy for families.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:24 AM on November 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

"I always wondered how my own aunt and uncle - the parents of the dead child - felt every time they said the name."

I can answer that, at least in my case... Initially it's jolting, and confusing, and the emotional response parallels, to some extent, the stages of grief, moving from denial to acceptance. At the acceptance point I was also able to incorporate a sense of honor and love in that act.
posted by HuronBob at 5:28 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I guess, on further reflection, I don't think the really weird thing is the name. I think the really weird thing is that her father named her after her dead sibling and then never told her. Honestly, it would have been weird never to tell her about Jeanne even if she were named Ellen.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:30 AM on November 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

I've seen this practice in various forms in my family, as well. One ancestor whose brother had died as a child gave her son the same first and middle name - who then died in childhood himself. The tragedy of that has stayed with me since I first discovered it in the genealogical records, but I have no insight into what my ancestor must have felt or thought.

My mother's father was so broken up by the young death of his wife Lucy that when he remarried, he named his daughter after her, which is far more unsettling to me than naming a child after a deceased sibling. Having never met my aunt, I again have no insight into her experience.

I was named after my father's mother, being the only daughter born after her death, and was thankfully given her middle name rather than her very dated first name. It's never bothered me and has given me a sense of closeness to a grandmother I've never known. What did bother me growing up is constantly being told by well-meaning relatives that I'm the spitting image of my mother's mother, "pauvre Lucy" who died of cancer at 24 (and who has a namesake in my aunt). I do look very like the few images we have of her, to the point where I've mistaken them for my own photographs, and I spent my childhood and early adulthood somehow thinking my fate was tied to hers. It was a relief to turn 25 and finally outlive her and the fear that my life would parallel hers.
posted by zenzicube at 6:05 AM on November 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

My mother was named after one of her paternal aunts, as were one of her sisters and a brother. The aunt Mom was named after had a long and happy life, so the only problem with being named after her was distinguishing which of them you were referring to in conversation. But the siblings Mom's sister and brother were named after died young --- at ages 7 and 2 --- of smallpox.

And like Segundus mentions, a lot of names were reused due to the higher child mortality of the past; I've found one set of my great-great grandparents who had (at least) sixteen children: three of the boys had the name Mathias, two of the girls were Lydia, two more Elisabeth, and four girls were name Anne, all because so many of the kids died so young and their names were reused. Imagine being that third Mathias or fourth Anne.....
posted by easily confused at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2015

I was almost named after my grandma, who died a few years before I was born. (we're not Ashkenaz). Instead I got her maiden name as my middle name.

As people are saying, I think the weirdness comes less for the name itself and more how people treat the name. Also sharing a name with someone who died of old age has less baggage than someone who died young. Like there's less association of taking on the mantle of that person.
posted by KernalM at 6:54 AM on November 1, 2015

I've always felt just a bit creeped-out when parents name their kids after some relative or another, alive or dead. My daughter (who is not pregnant) and her husband have already been debating names for any future children, and they are all mashups of various close relatives, including me. I asked to please not do that to her kids, and to give them their own name, not saddled with familial baggage. Or, at the very least, not to use my name. As always, I doubt she'll listen to me.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:58 AM on November 1, 2015

I'm Ashkenazi, so I'm very used to names that honor a dead relative, though my family usually uses the first initial rather than the whole name. I'm named after my great-grandfather, for instance.

But yeah, reusing the names of your dead children, which was apparently a common practice when child mortality was higher, weirds me out a little. I read that Alexander Hamilton's youngest child was named Philip-- he was born less than a year after his eldest, also Philip, was killed in a duel. Reading that, I was like "well, no pressure or anything. jeez."
posted by nonasuch at 7:28 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I am familiar with a similar naming pattern (and a related naming pattern of restricted name choices) in my biological family tree. I'm an adoptee and made contact with my birth mother about three years ago; her family has intricately detailed family heritage records going back centuries.

Over the period 1400 to about 1820, the first names of children tend strongly to be restricted to John, William, Robert, Elizabeth, and Anne, often in combination with a middle name taken from their mother's maiden name. Up to about 1720, the records show relatively small numbers of people becoming adults and presumably do not always reflect the names and birth dates of people who died as children.

From about 1720 until 1840 to 1860, it appears that all births are recorded and additionally, large numbers of children live to adulthood. In cases of early childhood mortality, say, up to three or four years of age, it is exceedingly common for the first child born after the death of a child to take that name. As the size of the cohorts grow, new names enter use, sometimes by borrowing and reiteration from the individual's maternal heritage and sometimes by names taken from close family associates. After 1860, family sizes decline to two or three kids, infant mortality appears to disappear, and the name reuse changes. Women's names continue to be restricted, often in combination with other maternal last names. Men's names primarily reuse the name John or take the form of senior, junior, III, IV, and so forth.

I am not aware of a naming pattern such as described by the author, in which a person is named after an adult sibling who died as an adult.

I have not yet sought out academic research on these naming patterns but as I have been stupefied by the reuse of names in eras where recordkeeping was thin on the ground in other family trees it seems clear to me that the use of a restricted familial namespace was far from uncommon in the United States from the 1600s through the early 1800s. It seems plausible to me that in fact in the absence of reliable records the repetition of names functioned in part to provide a familial identification mechanism both to inform family cohort members of potential economic collaborators and of the import of determining marital suitability (which actually was exteremely different than it is today - a cousin was an eligible partner and possibly *more* eligible in order to concentrate family capital resources).
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 AM on November 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had never encountered the term necronym before, but it makes perfect sense that there is such a term and that this is what it is (that is to say, if I had encountered in on its own in a contextual vacuum, I probably could have worked out what it referred to).

I first came across the idea years ago when in some quiz/riddle situation when someone posed a question to the effect of, "Salvador Dalí had a younger brother who was a world-renowned artist. What was the younger brother's name?" Crafty, that.

And the notion of a necronym helped give Caprica an unforeseen slalom ending when a [spoilers] character whom we know from a chronologically later television series is shot to death as a child.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:11 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to read this woman's blog when I was in college. She was just a few years older and had a very cute little daughter, who died as a toddler in a tragic accident.

She became pregnant only a few weeks later, and eventually gave her son a name with the same initials as her daughter. The blog chronicled the child's first few years of life, in an atmosphere of grief, eventually noting how he passed milestones the daughter never reached.

It seemed strange to me at the time, the comparison, like it would be destining that child for this awful irreconcilable sibling rivalry, but I understand it better now that I'm a mother myself--the way you might want to cling to life after that irrevocable, unimaginable loss but at the same time how it would be difficult to move past it, at least at first. There's this assumption that child loss was easier when it was more common but I can't imagine that was ever the case.

I think that naming children after other dead relatives is a different thing entirely, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:18 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Historically, not every family who had multiple children with the same names had had one of the children die; for example, the Pastons in England in the 15th century had two sons called John, both of whom were alive at the same time (and lived into adulthood). It was the tradition to name a child after a godparent; you usually wanted as a godparent someone who would be able to give the child good support through their life, so you often ended up with the same people as godparents to multiple children - hence getting the same name.

People were commonly named after deceased siblings, but when looking at historical records you shouldn't necessarily assume that's what's going on.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:25 AM on November 1, 2015

I think a parent naming a subsequent child for a deceased child is very different from naming after any other deceased relative (even the ones where the original relative died under gruesome cicumstances, which is pretty complex in itself), given that the parent-child relationship itself is being replicated. As others mention, it sounds like the grief of the father, and then later of the author, was complicated enough without that added detail.

My cousin - who is named for my father (his uncle), who was also named for his uncle - named his daughter for his brother who had died in tragic circumstances (unisex name). A family friend is named the feminine version of her deceased brother, and then named her son the same name. I have wondered if this was a particularly Catholic impulse.

Did anyone hear that This American Life where Molly Ringwald explains that she was a replacement child?
posted by vunder at 11:37 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

An aunt of mine passed away at age 10 from cancer. That death haunted several generations. My dad was a few years younger, and grew up in her shadow being raised to believe the no matter what he did, his dead sister would have done better. As a result, I grew up under a similar expectation of an unachievable level of acceptable performance.

There was also a cousin of mine named after said dead aunt. My grandmother always called her "Mary Kay" to differentiate her from her long dead Aunt Mary. Even though the aforementioned dead aunt was never talked about. I didn't even learn about her existence until I was a teenager.

Then again here was a lot of skeletons in that side of the family's closet. It was the second marriage for both of my grandparents, and I didn't learn until after my grandfather's passing that he had twin boys from his first marriage. He divorced the first wife after their twin boys died essentially together from some sudden onset illness. I never learned their names, but I am vaguely paranoid that those names are bouncing around the current family, possibly including my own name.
posted by Badgermann at 6:49 PM on November 1, 2015

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