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The Importance of Saying Their Names - Treasure Chest of Memories

Title The importance of Saying their names over an old black and white photo of three people. A woman is looking toward the camera.
When we think of loved ones—those still walking amongst us and those whose time on earth exists only memory—recalling and saying their names matters.

The utterance of individuals’ names has spiritual and ancestral significance in many cultures.

The Importance of Saying Their Names in Davidic Religions

In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, naming traditions and remembering people by name have deep theological and cultural significance.

Christian Traditions

The sacrament of Christian baptism begins with speaking the name of the child. According to a 2018 talk by Pope Francis, this welcoming rite “takes us out of anonymity” and begins our journey in God’s grace.[1] My Presbyterian church has a similar practice.

Reciting the names of individuals—even strangers—has theological implications in intercessory prayers as well.

Growing up in the big Southern Baptist church I attended, I would slump in dread when a certain. Associate Pastor came to the pulpit to offer prayers. His list of names (and places) seemed interminable. As the minutes (I’m not exaggerating here) ticked by, I wondered why he couldn’t just summarize. God would know who the pastor meant if he said, “those who are sick” rather than naming them all off.

Decades later, the theology behind praying for people by name makes more sense to me. In his Celebration of Disciplines, Richard J. Foster explains it comes down to intentionality.

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It’s not about what God knows. Our giving voice to others’ names helps us feel compassion. We acknowledge that behind that name is a life, a journey, and unique circumstances.

By saying their names, we come to care more. We’re invested in their well-being.

Jewish Traditions in Naming

Shiva.com (a resource site for Jewish mourning) explains that though rituals for naming a child may vary in Judaism, there is a common thread.

Some Jewish families name a newborn after a deceased relative, while others may honor a living family member. Regardless of which tradition is followed, the naming of a child is culturally significant. One viewpoint and tradition dates back to the biblical verse “Like his name, so is he,” asserting that a child’s name ultimately defines him or her, and is a large part of the heritage within most Jewish communities around the world. [2]

According to Ann Zivitiz Keintz, remembering loved ones by name on the anniversary of their death is a deep and meaningful tradition which revolves around saying their names. The tradition of honoring loved ones’ yahrzeit is based on the notion that no one is truly dead until “the very last time that anyone still living says the person’s name aloud.”[3]

Islam and Names

As Zakat.org eloquently puts it, “A Muslim baby name is an adornment in this world, an identification of its religion, and the title of honor by which it will be called in the Hereafter.”[4]

As in Christianity and Judaism, a child’s name links them to the Creator and the religious community.

Emotional Ties Resonate by Saying Their Names

Photo of my niece (toddler) and me

Love Names and Nick Names:

Some of us prefer our nicknames to the ones on our birth certificate.

My niece calls me Aunt Lolly. No one else does. Hearing her say “Aunt Lolly” in her perfect southern accent reminds me of the bonds we share.

Perhaps that’s also why we like to tell who we were named after. The stories of those who came before us mesh with our own. They connect us to a greater, ongoing story.

When a life by another name might not smell as sweet: Enslaved Individuals

Would a rose called “Daisy” smell different?

Would changing the names of the characters make the story less true?

Perhaps.

What if we had carried another name through life? What if the name we go by lacks the emotional ties bestowed on us by our family or faith?

In African American genealogy, researchers “release the names” of enslaved individuals they find in the records of slave holders, sharing the information to sites such as the Slave Name Roll Project and 10MillionNames .  (Read more about this at A Genealogy Problem: Accessible Records of Enslaved Individuals.)

This helps descendants researching their enslaved ancestors, but it does more than that.

There is a cathartic—even spiritual—power behind this release.

By publishing the names of individuals held in chattel slavery—a dignity denied to them on official records until after the Civil War—genealogists endeavor to restore a personhood to people who had been stripped of humanity by the institution of slavery.

Sadly, the practice of renaming the enslaved numbers amongst the many torments experienced by Africans brought in bondage to American shores. Thus, the names we release may not represent that individual’s family and ethnic history.

Dr. Nic Butler explains this in an article for the Charleston S.C. Library:

The name carried by an enslaved person in early South Carolina was more than just a marker of personal identity. In many cases, it was also [a] badge of submission or resistance. Most enslaved people living in early South Carolina bore names assigned to them by people exerting control over their respective lives. Although more subtle than the use of physical violence and intimidation, the act of erasing and replacing a person’s identity is an effective means of breaking the resistance of captive humans. …[5]

Though Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, thought that a name was just a label, not everyone feels that way.

A rose with quote What's in a name? That which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet;

What about a rose without a known origin?

The loss of “country names,” as indigenous names were called in the 18th and 19th centuries, leaves us with little clues of the ethnicities of individuals, and thus their individual and community stories.

Which brings us full circle.

Your Turn:  What’s your name’s origin story?

Is your name a way of honoring your family history or religious tradition? How do you feel about saying the names of deceased loved ones?

What’s your story?  I’d love to read it in the comments below. (This also makes are great writing prompt!)

 

[1]“Name given at baptism gives sense of identity, belonging, pope says,” National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2018, https://www.ncronline.org/vatican/francis-comic-strip/francis-chronicles/name-given-baptism-gives-sense-identity-belonging.

[2] “Naming a Child,” Shiva.com, Accessed July, 18, 2023, https://www.shiva.com/learning-center/commemorate/naming-a-child.

[3] Ann Zivitz Kientz, “Say Her Name, Say All Their Names,” October 29, 2020, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/2020/10/29/say-her-name-say-all-their-names/.

[4] “The Importance of Muslim Baby Names and Naming in Islam,” Zakat.org, Accessed December 3,2023

https://www.zakat.org/choose-muslim-baby-name .

[5] Nic Butler, Ph.D., “Recall Their Names: The Personal Identity of Enslaved South Carolinians,” Charleston (SC) County Public Library, October 2, 2020, https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/recall-their-names-personal-identity-enslaved-south-carolinians.

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