We went to a funeral last week. Or rather a memorial service held shortly after a private family ceremony at the crematorium. A number of affectionate tributes were paid to the deceased. It was a good ‘send-off’. I learned some things about this person which I did not know and would not have guessed. I suspect I was not alone in wondering – not really in a morbid fashion – what people would say about me when my time comes?
Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields, says that he writes his own obituary once every three years or so. He recommends the exercise. The aim is to try to discover what you would really like people to remember about your stint on earth. To try to crystallize what it is you truly aspire to. Secondly it is an opportunity to review the past three years and to see whether you have lived up to those earlier aspirations.
Some people who are coming close to their end like to plan in detail their own funeral services. While I respect that I have never really understood it. Is it an attempt to control the narrative? Surely the members of the close family know the person well enough to make choices about the service themselves. This is very personal and sensitive stuff and I would not dream of trying to be prescriptive about it. But I will leave the matter in the hands of my family who probably know me better than I know myself.
The event gave me pause for thought. In fact in the moments before going to sleep that evening I spent some drowsy moments imagining what people might say at my funeral. How would I like to be remembered? What anecdotes would I like people to retell over tea and sandwiches at the wake afterwards?
The fact is that we do all have our own version of ourselves which we rehearse while we are alive. It may tend to reflect well on ourselves. We may edit out the messy bits. We may have already done unconscious editing via forgetting the unflattering things. We tend to manicure our reputations. This happens most clearly perhaps on social media sites like Facebook. The sanitized versions of ourselves.
But Facebook users are not alone in editing their own profiles. We all do it in everyday conversations. We tell ourselves these outline autobiographies and we put them out there for the benefit of others. Are they at all accurate? Do people believe them? Are there those of our friends and family who are bold enough to challenge some parts of the story? The danger is that we get stuck in our stories and don’t subject them to occasional revision as we become older and maybe a bit wiser.
We have friend, a journalist, who has spent a good part of his career doing the research for obituaries for people in the public eye. Thus when the time comes the media outlets can release factually accurate stories embellished by the particular spin which a journalist may want to put on it. He has to revise the stories with the passage of time.
If all this sounds too much - how about simply writing your own epitaph? What would you like people to write on your headstone or on the commemorative bench overlooking a beauty spot?
And if that sounds too morbid, Irenaeus, an ancient French bishop, has a word for us today: ‘The glory of God is man fully alive’. I’ll drink to that!