How Will I Be Remembered?

I STOOD IN DUBLIN’S GLASNEVIN CEMETERY, staring up at the sky as if in a dream. I couldn’t walk or run; I could only stand still. A haze of sunlight and rain changed the light every few minutes, leaving a spectrum of colors in its wake.

I gazed above, marveling at the universe fully displaying its power, like a reflection of joy lingering in the clouds.

Seeing each color so finely defined from the others made me feel human. We can explain the science of a rainbow, but there’s still something heavenly about them.

We equate color with life, as a body bereft of color ceases to exist. The heart no longer works, the limbs are immovable, and the color that once filled the body fades.

However, we remember the body by the spirit it contained. The body is just the home of the soul, a gift, although fleeting.

I see cemeteries as a window into the past of a place and culture. I see them as a celebration of life. The bodies that lay in the earth have likely decayed, but the names still hold significance.

On the gravestone, the name is the first thing we recognize. Some names transcend time and become fixed in history, the name as strong as the soul to which it’s attached.

Then a message, a few words to encapsulate the human spirit. Perhaps it will only make sense to friends and family, but then what of somebody like me? A foreigner — what do I make of it the words inscribed?

The world around me settled; the only sound the softly falling rain. What will my tombstone read when my spirit leaves the earth, I wondered?

How will I be remembered?

What we do every day determines how we’ll be remembered when our name is nothing more than a memory, carried in the wind through the perennial connection of the human spirit.

After a few generations, seldom more than the name remains to keep our ancestors in our memories. After a few hundred years, it seems like an entirely different world which our great-great-grandparents called home.

We may be aware of how they looked and how they spoke, but how did their nuances make them who they were?

As long as we talk about our ancestors and tell their stories, their laughs travel through the generations. Their glinting smiles, passions, and subtleties, if we allow them to be, are with us now.

I strive to live in a way which causes my great-grandkids to wonder and laugh as I do when I hear stories of my great-grandfather.

It starts with living from a place of love. It begins with being ourselves.

Throughout history, one strove to secure fame, power, and prestige, to ensure one’s name lived on through time immemorial.

In our present-day fame means something different then it did a couple of hundred years ago. At its foundation, however, it’s the same. We want to feel relevant.

We think importance comes from the big things we do, but it doesn’t. It’s not our monumental moments which others see that define us. Yes we should be proud of them, but each life event comes and goes before we’re able to enjoy it.

How we live when nobody is looking makes us who we are. 

What we do every day gets us closer or further from that ideal — how do we carry ourselves? Are we light and joyful, laughing as much as possible? Are we courageous? Do we live with intention, to care and look out for others? These are the characteristics that matter.

It may be as simple as keeping a smile on our faces. We don’t know how it may touch somebody in need.

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy represents a man who lived with his whole heart and soul while on this earth. When he left, there was nothing else to prove.

In Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Zweig describes visiting Tolstoy’s grave in Russia at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Tolstoy grew up.

Away from the road and lonely, this noble shrine lies shaded in the forest,” Zweig writes.

Guarded by none and watched by none, merely shaded by a few big trees. These towering trees, Leo Tolstoy planted himself. His brother Nicolai and he as boys had once heard from some village crone a proverb, that happiness would prevail where trees were planted. 

Nameless, the great man lies buried, no cross, no tombstone, no inscription.”

No better than anybody else, Tolstoy’s grave is beautiful in its simplicity. Nestled in the forest where he was inspired to share in the gift of life, his spirit lives on.

Tolstoy was brilliant in the way he captured the magic of living. It’s why he’s one of the greatest writers of all time.

One of my favorite scenes from Tolstoy’s War and Peace embodies what he stood for.

The French army takes the Russian Prince Andrei prisoner on the battlefield. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who about two hundred years ago razed country after country to secure his place in history, approaches the prisoners.

Even though they’re fighting against one another, Napoleon is Prince Andrei’s hero, as he’s the most famous man in the world at the time. Prince Andrei is mystified as he looks into the eyes of Napoleon, his last breaths slipping away.

Now, with his eyes fixed directly on Napoleon, Prince Andrei was silent,

Tolstoy writes.

To him at that moment, all the interests that occupied Napoleon seemed so insignificant. His hero himself seemed so petty to him, with his petty vanity and joy in victory, compared with that lofty, just and kindly sky.

Behind Napoleon, Prince Andrei gazes into the clear sky. Nothing is more powerful, not even Napoleon himself.

He realizes Napoleon is just a man. Nothing of war, the day-to-day worries, or the pursuit of power which Napoleon goes to the end of the earth to secure means anything to Prince Andrei anymore.

Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain…

How, he wonders, is anything that we desire — fame, power, prestige —  as worthwhile as a moment to stare into the vastness of the clear blue sky?

Nothing, nothing is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend, and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important!

Tolstoy writes.

We comprehend the material world, fame, power, and think of these things as valuable.

We can’t understand what’s within us; we can’t fathom the grandeur of a clear blue sky, or the spirit and the heavens. We struggle to explain what goodness truly is or the complexities of love.

Yet, as Tolstoy writes, these things are most important of all. A life dedicated to the incomprehensible is a life well-lived.

I think of my grandfather Dicky’s grave, perched atop a rolling green hill overlooking the valley below. Today is the day he passed away, although I know he’s still with us.

His spirit lives on in our memories as somebody who cared for others and lived to smile. My family often talks about him as if he’s here, smiling and laughing, the life of any party.

On his gravestone is inscribed:

Tennis in the morning, poker in the evening, racing in the afternoon.

I imagine what somebody would think if they saw this and didn’t know him. The words on the stone serve as a memory. But these words can’t capture his warmth or his kindness. They don’t have to.

If the phrase which sums up how he spent many days gives someone a laugh as they walk by, that would be good enough for Dicky.

When we think about him, he is here rooting us along, telling us to let go of what’s unimportant.

If the inscription, “Tennis in the morning, poker in the evening, racing in the afternoon,” doesn’t capture a lighthearted spirit, I don’t know what does.

That’s how I want to be remembered. That’s how I strive to live. 


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