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No Need To Be Remembered
- What an excellent company! - whispered my husband’s mom as we were strolling across a historic cemetery - See? There’s this famous actor over there, he was so good in my favorite film! Oh, and this lady? She was a such a famous and marvellous poet, but also openly lesbian… I wonder how they let her rest in the Catholic part?
It was barely 2pm, but the sun was already low on the horizon. In December it’s always either this or no sun at all. Today we got the most beautiful weather that you can possibly have at this time of year, a bright and sunny day after a whole three days of snowfall. All the tree branches, tombs, sculptures, and paths among them were wrapped in a thick layer of snow.
- I can’t believe Jan Kiepura is also here! I love him so much, he must have been the best Polish singer of all times! - Mom continued for the whole length of the Avenue of the Distinguished, the most famous alley of the most famous Polish cemetery. It’s the forever home for some of the finest Poles who died in the last hundred years. - Our poor old Michał is going to rest surrounded by so many extraordinary people…
- Yes, mom - I said - this place is so beautiful…
The names she mentioned don’t really mean anything to me, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her this. I could recognize some early Polish presidents, and a few other people I’ve heard about in school, but that was it. I never had a chance to form an emotional connection with their work. Seeing their tombs was interesting, but in the way reading trivia is interesting. To our mom, this was clearly a transcendent experience.
The air was freezing cold, the coldest we had this year so far, but I was well prepared for this in my faux sheepskin coat. I read one tomb inscription after another, highly distinguished professor, the most highly decorated general, extraordinary president and founder. Who remembers about these people now? Our parents and grandparents may still be touched when seeing their names, but to me they all say very little. To my daughter, who’s attending her second funeral this month and also the second one ever, this will be just a large featureless crowd of long-forgotten names.
It’s not like I discovered anything surprising in this cemetery. Marcus Aurelius already wrote about it two thousands years ago. For every Marcus Aurelius whose thoughts are still widely read centuries later, how many equally virtuous and insightful people are completely forgotten by history? The contrast between mom’s reactions to the tombs and mine was striking. I highly doubt anyone from my daughter’s generation will feel as awestruck as she felt seeing them.
- It’s heartbreaking to say this final goodbye - said the funeral celebrant minutes later - but our dear Michał isn’t fully gone yet. He will still live through us, in our hearts, thoughts, and memories, for as long as we love and remember him. And may we love and remember him forever.
All of us present in this cemetery may remember him for as long as we live, but will this be true of our children too? I don’t even know the names of my own great-grandparents. The names of all the people who came before them got completely lost over time.
Compared with the Christian promise of eternal life, living in people’s memories sounds so fragile and fickle! If the most excellent artists, professors, and generals from two generations ago are mostly forgotten now, what chance does the rest of us mere mortals have? The officiant’s sad trumpet began to weep above the cemetery tombs and the long shadows cast by setting sun.
Do you have to be remembered in order for your life to matter? Do you have to leave a dent in the Universe so big that you end up in history books?
You can feel deeply touched by a song or poem without knowing who the author was. And if that poem changes something in you, and you begin to show up in the world differently, its author will also touch all the people you meet afterwards, even if neither of you ever knew anything about her. Michał was such a warm and loving husband, dad, and grandpa, that his love and warmth will keep going - if not technically forever, then definitely long after anyone remembers his name.
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