Do you ever wonder how you’ll be remembered after you die?
At your memorial service and for years to come, what will others remember most about your life?
What do you want people to remember about you and your life?
Of course, you’ll be gone, so it may not matter that much to you. But if you’re like most of us, you hope that you made some difference on this earth with your life.
Most of us will not make a major, life-changing difference like discovering a cure for cancer or ending world hunger or negotiating the political break-through that leads to world peace. But you will inevitably have an impact on many of the lives you touch. And many of those people will want to remember you. And while the best memories will live on in their hearts, it’s nice to leave some tangible mementos as well.
The other day, a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of her cousin relaxing on his porch in the shade. On the table next to him were a boom box and a stack of cassette tapes. I commented, jokingly, that I didn’t think anybody listened to cassette tapes on boom boxes any more.
My friend told me that those were tapes that her mother had left behind. She found a box of them up in her mother’s attic as they were cleaning out her house. Some of those cassettes contained recordings of my friend and her cousin playing in band concerts when they were younger. Others contained audio “letters” that my friend and her mother sent back and forth years ago. Rather than writing letters on paper, they would record themselves talking onto cassette tapes and send those.
Today, those recordings bring back wonderful, priceless memories for my friends.
After my parents died, my sister and I had a week to go through their entire house and disposition all of their possessions. We had to make quick decisions about what we would keep, what should go to others, what would be donated, what was trash, and what could be sold at the upcoming estate auction.
I discovered that my mother had kept every letter that I had written to her over the years. Sadly, I didn’t write as often as I should have, but I did write often enough that the letters brought back moments of time in my life and memories of my mother.
I discovered a box of her old photographs and memorabilia – some of which I had never seen before. There were photos of my mother in high school, and her dance cards from her high school dances. There was a picture of my deceased cousin, who died in an automobile accident five years before I was born, and whose trombone I still play today. I knew of him, but I had never seen his picture.
At some point when I was well into my adulthood and my parents were in the last decade of their lives, I discovered a book called To Our Children’s Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come, by Bob Greene and D.G. Fulford. This book encourages readers to write down stories from their lives, and guides them with questions that may prompt them with what to write about. I bought a copy and gave it to my parents, and asked them if they would write down some memories from their lives.
My father, who was not a communicative person, never did. My mother wrote only eight typewritten pages, but they were eight pages of gold. Of course, some chapters of her life weren’t covered in those few pages, but everything that was covered was precious. I learned a few things I didn’t know before. Her story gave me new insight and appreciation for who my mother was as a person.
When my mother died, I hurriedly transferred her typewritten pages into a Word document, added a couple pictures, formatted it into a 12-page 8½ x 5½ booklet, made 100 copies, and gave them out at her memorial service. Many of our relatives and friends seemed to appreciate that. I felt good about creating a tangible way to commemorate her life, such as it was.
All of this has led me to think about what stories and memorabilia from my life I would like to leave behind for others. I hope this article prompts you to think about your life and what you want to share with others.
I don’t have children, but I do have nieces and nephews who now have kids of their own. I also have a chosen family of dear friends whose lives are important to me and who probably feel similarly towards me. All of us have some people who love us and will want to remember us after we are gone.
You may easily underestimate the impact you have had on other people’s lives, and how much they will miss you and want to remember you after you’re gone.
At some point during your life, you will probably decide to downsize. If you’re like me, after a lifetime of accumulating and collecting (and needing to move to larger and larger houses to hold it all), you will reach a point at which you decide that it’s time to start throwing stuff away. Please, please, don’t toss away all those old photo albums, letters, homemade tapes and movies, and other remnants of significant events in your life.
The Digital Dilemma
The advent of digital photography and videography is a double-edged sword when it comes to amassing archival pictures and videos.
The biggest benefits to digital photography are the minimal cost and the ease of sharing. Long gone are the days when we had to buy rolls of film and pay to have them developed and printed. But now that pictures are free, people take far more pictures than they would have if they had a finite number of exposures per roll and had to judiciously budget their picture-taking.
But the downside to this is that we can now take hundreds of pictures rather than dozens. I’ve often returned from vacation to discover that Jeff and I together took over 1,000 pictures. It’s hard to reduce that many pictures down to a more manageable number. Having so many pictures often reduces their individual perceived value.
I now have an external hard drive filled with over 15,000 pictures. Going through them and selecting a choice few seems like a Herculean task.
I also ponder whether pictures taken and stored in electronic format will be accessible to my survivors. At least with photo albums, the pictures exist in a physical form. With pictures stored digitally, will anyone else be able to access my computer and my hard drive after I’m gone – especially if my computer is password-protected? Will someone even think to look on my computer?
Will other people know if I have photos online, and will they know where and how to access them? Will those photos get deleted at some point after my account goes inactive?
Ways You Can Create a Document of Your Life
There are many ways you can preserve the highlights of your life – your memories, your pictures, your stories – for those who remain after you’ve gone. What you choose to do is up to you.
A lot depends on what you have to work with. You may have thousands of pictures or none. You may have diaries, journals, or other records of events that have happened during your life or you may not. You may enjoy writing or you may prefer to talk into a tape recorder or sit down in front of a video camera and talk. You can ask a close friend or relative to interview you in the form of relaxed, casual conversations that you record.
You may prefer to leave information in physical form (such as paper, photo albums, and other memorabilia) or electronic form (burned onto discs or thumb drives or stored online somewhere), or some combination of the two.
Whatever works best for your preferences and what you have to work with is fine.
The worst mistake you can make is to do nothing. It’s easy to think that this is something you’ll get around to “someday.”
You don’t have to make this a massive project. You can just devote an hour or two to it occasionally, when you have the time and feel the inspiration. A good approach might be to simply get started now, and mark your calendar to revisit and update this project once every three months.
Your memoir doesn’t have to be lengthy, and in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. People probably won’t want to wade through thousands of photos or read hundreds of pages of your detailed autobiography. You don’t have to chronicle your entire life – just some key points and representative samples are fine. People will cherish whatever you provide for them, and they probably won’t think much about what they don’t see.
Think about your loved ones who have already passed. What do you wish you could know about their lives? What questions would you ask them if you could spend a day with them now? This might give you some perspective on what people who survive you might like to know about you.
Events such as reunions, holiday gatherings and milestone birthday parties are excellent opportunities to capture some photos or videos of you with the people who are closest to you. It shouldn’t be anything high-production (which may be awkward and uncomfortable), just something that catches people as they are.
As you take pictures of the vacations and events of your life, it’s fine to take pictures of beautiful sunsets, famous landmarks, and spectacular panoramas. But the photos that will be most valuable to you and your loved ones later will be the photos with people in them.
My father was an avid photographer who thoroughly documented all the vacations he and my mother took. They are wonderful pictures, but he was in very few of them since he was always behind the camera.
In these social media crazed times, it’s easy to overdo it with dozens of gratuitous, narcissistic selfies. But do take some pictures of those special gatherings with you and your friends and family in them. Those selfie sticks really do have their place, when used in moderation. You should be in your pictures, too.
Questions to Ask Yourself
If the idea of creating some sort of lasting memoir appeals to you, some of these questions may help. This is just a random sampling to get you started. Go with whatever matters most to you and whatever you feel inspired to write about.
- What are a few accomplishments that you are most proud of?
- Who were your best friends at various times in your life?
- What were the major transition points in your life?
- What were a few of your happiest times?
- What are some of the funniest things that have happened to you?
- What were (and are) your hobbies and interests?
- What was high school like?
- What did you learn the hard way?
- What were your biggest challenges?
- What changes in technology or culture had the most significant impact on your life?
If you decide to go this route, you may want to purchase To Our Children’s Children, the book I mentioned above, or another book like it.
But do something! Your life matters, and you have had more of an impact on other people’s lives than you probably realize.
Think of the people who mattered to you and who have passed from your life – people for whom you wish you had more to remember them with, or perhaps people for whom you’re grateful that you do. Chances are, they underestimated how much others would want to remember them after they were gone, too.
Once you have created and documented your life and your story, don’t forget to let a few other people know that it exists and where to find it – even if it’s not finished. In fact, it will probably always be a work in progress. Whatever you get done will be cherished by others!
What do you want people to remember about you and your life?
Contribute your thoughts in the Comments, below!
© 2015 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Man looking across clouds: Joshua Burke
Cassettes: Pascal Terjan. Some rights reserved.
Living room clutter: Alex Foster. Some rights reserved.
Old photos: Kurtis Garbutt. Some rights reserved.
Conversation: Michael Coghlan. Some rights reserved.
Grandparents: Andrew Bardwell. Some rights reserved.
Large family photo: Oakley Originals. Some rights reserved.