When people die, we have very nice ceremonies to remember them. Often we end up saying things posthumously to or about them that we never managed to say to them while they were alive.
Why do we wait?
Memorial services are more for the living than the dead. They give the grieving something to do. They give the living a reson to believe that when their time comes, someone will probably have a nice ceremony for them. But they don’t do the one thing we might wish for: Let the people we care about actually know that we do.
I wrote a technical article once, on an unrelated topic, in which I referred to a concept I called “accelerated hindsight.” The notion is that if hindsight is always 20/20, and if it’s easy to see forward into time to the point where we can see backward clearly, then why not just simplify matters and admit those things we know will eventually be crystal clear in hindsight? So if we care enough about people to memorialize them after they die, why not do it beforehand—while they’re still around to enjoy the praise and feel appreciated?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we look for friends or family who seem like they’re about to keel over and inflict some sort of going away party on them. Maybe for some that would be better than nothing, but for some that might add unwanted stress, like others have given up on them and maybe they’re sending a “hurry up and die already” message.
No, I really mean something earlier than that.
Some might say that’s what birthdays are for—a chance to mark the passing of time by getting together with people to celebrate. But birthdays are already heavily ritualized in ways that might conflict. Birthdays are about presents. Maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe we should refocus birthdays on something less materialistic. But they are what they are, and so I’m not specifically suggesting commandeering that holiday.
Birthdays also come way too often. Not just my birthday, which itself comes way too often these days, but yours, and hers, and his. It’s an endless parade of birthdays any more, something Facebook users are probably acutely aware of. Pretty much every day is someone’s birthday. That takes away some specialness.
Besides, I’m talking about honoring a person’s life achievements, not just what they did last week or last month. But maybe not a whole lifetime; life sometimes seems divided into chapters. Or perhaps one sometimes has the good fortune to live more than one life in a lifetime; I’ve felt that way. Either way, I’m thinking it requires more than a year of knowing, observing, and relating to a person to put their life into perspective.
A retirement party? Well, not all of us have the luxury of retiring, so let’s not require some specific event to happen. Holding our appreciation of others hostage to events serves no one. There isn’t always an event that precipitates the need. The event is the person’s life.
I might settle for something around age 40 or 50, maybe at intervals, where we just got together to take stock and note the passing of time. Something timed to not necessarily be the end of one’s life, though we really never know who will be around longer and who won’t.
I have even, on occasion, thought it might be nice to bequeath a few possessions at such a ceremony. I can be quite a packrat.† I save stuff I wonder if I’ll ever use, but I have no occasion to give it away. Perhaps a “live memorial” event could be such an opportunity. In regard to that ritual, more like a reverse birthday party—a chance to give away things rather than receive them. But really, why wait until you’re gone to pass things along? And by “you,” I mean me. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing myself. Ridding myself of certain baggage of the past might give me a way of punctuating one of those life chapters, clearing room—both literal and figurative—for a new one to begin.
In a world where money and power are increasingly siphoned off by and for the benefit of a self-congratulatory economic elite, there are ever more people who aren’t succeeding economically. The fact that the game isn’t “zero-sum” doesn’t mean some aren’t getting their due. Our societal processes of incentives and rewards need some heavy-duty reforming, but in the meantime there are many whose contributions to the world are as worthy as they are unrecognized. There are people who will be remembered when they’re gone, but would it be so terrible to remember them while they’re still here? Some of them might not even realize anyone cares.
Memorial Day has drifted from its original meaning, and seems lately—at least in the circles I run in—to be less a day of remembrance and more just the unofficial beginning of summer. It’s just a day to get together with friends and barbecue. And I’m not even saying that’s bad. After all, some of those we value are likely to be present. Nor is the world ill-served by attention to a simple pleasures like conversation and cooking. But it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to add to the celebration a bit of thoughtful appreciation for all of those who’ve affected our lives, even those still among us. That would seem a start anyway.
I don’t have a highly specific suggestion to end on. This is all just me thinking aloud. Maybe all that will happen is that I’ll call or email a few friends and tell them how much they’ve meant to me. Maybe you’ll do likewise. In some cases a public celebration may be deserved, but a private thank you may be all that’s practical.
If you’ve got any other suggestions, feel free to share them.
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†Fellow pack rats may enjoy my free-form quasi-poem The URLs of the Mind.