PROVO — Far more than merely identifying ancestors' names, "family history really is a work of the heart," an emeritus general authority of the LDS Church said Tuesday.

In the keynote address at the annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy convening this week at BYU, Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander explained some of the key Mormon doctrines that drive the intense interest of the church and its members in researching names of their dead kindred.

"Knowledge of the historic context in which our ancestors lived, the details of their lives and the experience that shaped their personalities are essential to understanding of ourselves," Elder Neuenschwander said.

"For the Latter-day Saints, there are powerfully beautiful doctrines that provide not only the foundation for the identification of our ancestors, but for their salvation as well," he said. "The plan of salvation and the atonement of Jesus Christ are the very backbone of genealogical research."

For ancestors who have died, Christ's atonement provides for them the exact same hope as it does for those who are now living, Elder Neuenschwander said. Hence there is a need to identify them so their descendants may perform vicarious baptism and other essential ordinances in their behalf for their salvation, he explained.

"But for me, there is yet an important question to be asked," Elder Neuenschwander said. "Does not family history reach as easily to future generations as to past ones?"

Noting that quality of life is affected by knowledge of one's ancestors, he said it gives one a sense of identity and personal responsibility "that, really, can come only in that way."

"If this is true, is it not also true that our posterity will be so influenced by our lives?" Elder Neuenschwander asked.

"If we do not create records that document our lives, or that of our families, knowledge of who we are is lost within a generation or two, and we become those who are lost in obscurity," he said. "Without that knowledge, our posterity becomes disconnected from their roots and from the nourishment those roots provide."

Lasting through Friday, the conference offers some 140 sessions covering various aspects of genealogy, including a "beginner track" teaching the basics of family history research. Nearly 500 attendees have registered this year, said George R. Ryskamp, associate professor of history at BYU and one of the organizers. Attendance is a bit lower than in past years due to a huge conference that convened in April in Salt Lake City in connection with the meeting of the National Federation of Genealogical Societies, Ryskamp said.

This is the 47th year of the conference, he said.

"Through the years, probably tens of thousands of people have learned how to do family history here at this BYU conference," Ryskamp said.