When my stepfather died a couple of years ago, my family was mildly amused by the obituary he wrote for himself. It was probably the longest obituary the paper had ever published. It was full of all the things that he had done in his life that were important to him. He listed accomplishments and events that no one in the family would’ve thought of adding to the announcement. A sometimes ruthless businessman who frequently embarrassed his step-children with his conservative views, the accomplishment he was proudest of was the many years he spent volunteering with the Boy Scouts. What he wanted to be remembered for most was how he contributed to helping young boys become men.
In the last year a good friend lost his mother to cancer. He wrote the most beautiful obituary I’ve ever read. He used words to paint a picture of a brave French girl who lived in Paris during the German occupation and how when she married an American GI she brought much of the beauty and sophistication of the French culture to a Midwestern city. Even though the mother and son didn’t always see eye to eye he was determined the world would remember her for all her contributions to the beauty of the world around her.
I have thought about my funeral many times and have long since given my daughters my directives for how to conduct my funeral. They have firm instructions to make sure the visitation feels like a party. I want my casket lined with shots of good whiskey, and I want bottles of wine available at each end for those who can’t handle the shots of whiskey. I want there to be stories and laughter. The funeral itself should be a continuation of the stories. I want an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome to come forward and tell their story. Long after the formalities are over, I want everyone there to remember the laughter whenever they feel saddened by my absence.
What I now realize is that I haven’t given enough attention to the words people will use to describe me when I’m gone. What are the stories they’ll tell about me? What will they remember?
There are many things I would like friends and family to remember about me. The night after planning and hosting a national event when I had a few too many “thank God that’s over” drinks and ended up dancing in a fountain in a popular entertainment district in town. The times I took my grandkids to the creek and let them play in the water. The bikes I bought for all my grandkids. The stories I told my kids and grandkids about growing up in the 70’s. The stories I didn’t tell my kids and grandkids about growing up in the 70’s but that a few of my good friends still remember. I hope they remember the times I sat down with them and listened when they needed it and hugged them when they needed that more.
I am embarrassed to admit that there was a time in my life when I fantasized about what the coroner might say about my body when an autopsy was being performed. I was so body conscious at that moment in time that I actually took pleasure in imagining how impressed they would be by my muscularity. Thankfully, I am years past that perverse vanity, but it says a lot about how easily we can shift our focus from the things that are important to the ludicrous and silly. I suspect we’ve all been guilty of occasionally worrying more about what people will think than worrying about whether we’ve done the right or kind thing.
We spend so much of our time focusing on what people think about us in this moment and on a superficial level we sometimes forget to focus on what’s important. My friends and family may talk about the days when I competed in triathlons, but no one will remember what I weighed or what color my hair was at any particular point in my life. They may remember the meals and the laughter that were shared in my home but they probably won’t reminisce about what car was in the driveway or the cute shoes I wore.
If you died and were able to come back for your own funeral and listen to your own eulogy, what would you like to hear? What part of yourself do you want to stick in people’s minds after you’re gone? Did you do enough of the things that are important and that everyone would like to be remembered for? Did you ignore the homeless person on the corner, or did you have a kind word for them? Did you hold the door open for the person who was struggling to open it themselves, or did you turn away like you didn’t see?
The phrase “life is short” is bandied about to the point that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. It’s yet another over-used phrase that has a very real message behind the cliché’. No one wants to spend their life fearing death. I personally don’t believe death is something to be feared. What I do want to do is spend my life behaving in such a way that if I should die tomorrow I can die knowing I left a loving footprint on this earth.
Someone once told me that the definition of Hell was: “The last day you have on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” Instead, I would like to hope that the two of them would enjoy meeting each other and be proud of all that they accomplished. I would also like to think that the two of them would have some good laughs and maybe even raise a glass or two of our favorite Irish whiskey.
(Originally published on my now-defunct website, Jasmine Petals Thoughts, on September 4, 2015)