What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

32 thoughts on “What’s your legacy?

  1. I remember giving the eulogy on behalf of the grandchildren for my grandfather two years ago at his funeral. I decided to focus on how proud he was of all of us, even those who went to Ohio State (he was a die-hard Michigan fan), and how he tried to support our dreams and activities as best he could. For my first eulogy, people said I did a good job of memorializing my grandfather.
    As for my own legacy…I’m working on it. And I hope whenever I do go (hopefully not for a long while), I leave behind a legacy I can be proud of.

      1. You know what’s funny..I feel I have focused most on what I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave any estate drama for our 4 kids..so we always update stuff and make sure we’re in order. I don’t want to leave a bunch of belongings/collections for them to feel guilty about throwing away.. For over a year I have been downsizing and making tough decisions so they don’t have to..also putting greeting cards, kids’ art, movies and photos (from albums) on CDs so they can all have copies and I can toss the actual stuff that’s literally rotting in the Florida heat. As far as what I want to leave..good memories..that’s about it. I didn’t cure any disease, capture El Chapo or run missions in Africa, but I hope people will smile when they think of me.

      2. That’s a lot of work — and good for you!

        Our garage (cringes) has a row of plastic bins stacked five high and five across and I want to take a flamethrower to all of it. Instead, we will spend more time (once it is not 100 degrees) going through every single container and throwing out/donating or (ideally) selling whatever we possibly can. We have no children to leave anything to, so we also have to think through who will benefit from our estate(s) and assets…neither of us has any sentimentality towards our almas mater either…

        I don’t think any of us need to carry the burden of Changing The World…just our little corner of it.

      3. Totally agree…and as far as having “your affairs in order”..I have seen over the past years what a GIFT that is..and what a disaster it can be if left undone. But oh my, what a frrrreakin’ job!! I have been at it forever..I’m like in phase three or possibly eleven or twenty nine. The other day I spent about two (and some) hours online tracing the markings on the bottom of two, passed down, Victorian figurines I do NOT like, but have kept, thinking they were valuable ..they are not. It was sweet liberation putting them in the box for Goodwill and all I kept thinking was I just gifted my own kids that time I wasted online..Talk about paying it waay forward..HAHA!!

      4. It can be very very very time-consuming, for sure. We have managed to give away a lot of it to our local thrift shop (and he will pick things up in his van) so that helps.

  2. It is amazing what we learn at a funeral, it fills in the blanks and suddenly many things make much more sense. it also reminds us how it is important to always think about why someone may act the way they do, or say the things they do, before making a judgment. there is often a reason behind it all. I hope that my legacy will be a positive one, that I enjoyed making people smile, that I tried to practice kindness in my everyday life, that I deeply loved those close to me, and of course, the stories! )

  3. Thomas Jefferson was born, he owned some slaves and he died. There’s his legacy. Sure he did much more than that, but people only want to remember the things that suit them and only want to talk about the things that aren’t uncomfortable to discuss. President Jefferson, General W.T. Sherman (VERY unpopular among southern white and native American People), Kate Smith and Malcolm X all receive considerably less than a fair hearing for the things they did and didn’t do over the course of their lives. This motivates their detractors to go to the hardware store for some spray paint to engage in a little midnight vandalism (Very courageous). This is how the legacy of these people is honored and I have no reason to believe mine will be treated any more fairly. Therefore my legacy, for good or ill, will be whatever the small number of people who will remember me make it. It won’t be unveiled at the podium of a funeral home. Maybe in the dark, drunken hours where similarly dark drunken feelings emerge, some will find something of me to cherish. Then they will go home, nurse their hangovers, and allow me and my legacy of whatever I was to them to flow away into the black sea of memory while they deal with the more pressing business of their own lives.
    I try to be fair even though they tell me the world is not. I am not the world and I CAN be fair. I am neither unnecessarily cruel nor kind, in perception or actuality. In the days of my callow youth, before I understood what that horrible Jefferson person was talking about with regard to “…A decent respect for the opinions of mankind” I got smacked in the mouth for shooting it off in the wrong place. A great kindness that probably saved me more than once. Thanks, dude. I can’t remember your name but I’ll never forget what I learned.
    So I say don’t sweat your legacy. You can’t really control it, Do your best to have a happy life and let them say that if they want.

    1. Thanks…People will always carry their own perceptions…my own mother wants nothing to do with me, her only child, while others love me deeply.

      My larger question is what we’re doing every day to make the place better, even the smallest thing. If we’re not, we’re wasting our precious time here.

      1. I understood the larger question. Doing my best to have a happy life while balancing the need for a decent respect for the opinions of mankind and the need for a decent respect for the person I see in the mirror is my answer.

      2. Okay, there’s this: I don’t remember if I wrote this here or on someone else’s blog, but I was playing my guitar and I remembered saying that I wanted to write a song that people would love and sing and remember long after they have forgotten about me. That might bring people together and possibly make the world better in some small way. Bits and pieces of melody and poetry run through my mind all the time. If I sift them long enough, that song may appear. Wish me luck.
        I’m sorry about your mom. Mine “Loves” me but not really. She loves the silly little boy I used to be but, now that I am grown, she doesn’t take me seriously or treat me with any respect. It used to really bother me and I wanted to get closer. These days I doubt it would be worth it. I hope your circumstances don’t bring you too much pain.

  4. I’ve delivered two eulogies in my life, for my maternal grandparents. Both were honest, open portraits. One was about a good person, the other was an admission that even bad people sometimes leave good memories. I’m in the same boat as you in that I have no children. I’m planning to be cremated and I hope if my friends and family gather for a Celebration of Life in my honor that they say I listened when someone needed to be heard, kept silent when my words would have needlessly hurt others, spoke up when something needed to be said, and spread laughter in a world that needed it more often.

      1. I seem to spend far too much time thinking about what’s next. On one hand I think it’s important to do something useful and contribute to the world, but on the other hand I worry that I’m just being self-centred. It clearly doesn’t matter to anyone else whether I just relax and let the world go by, but somehow this feels wrong, as though I’m giving in and giving up.
        I love the comments on this post, so thoughtful and though provoking. I’m definitely going to start getting rid of stuff so my kids don’t have to.

      2. Not sure there’s “far too much time” — as that your own business anyway. I wish more people DID think this through, both in terms of their physical and financial legacies but emotionally — how they hope to be remembered.

  5. I’ve seen people tie themselves in knots with anxiety about their literary legacies, and so took to thinking about myself only in terms of what I do now, assuming there is nothing that will follow – oddly enough, not hanging onto the idea of a legacy of any kind has freed me up to get on with things and worry a bit less. I just do the best I can with what I’ve got, day to day – if that leaves a longer mark, I don’t have much say in that, and if, like most people, I disappear into history, so be it.

    1. I often wonder — seeing the latest Big Star — whose work will actually be read and remembered 20, 30 50+ years later (if there even is a planet by then.) If you look back at the Big Names of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s…how many are still read and respected?

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