On Being Remembered

Reading: from The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac

They buried George Martin in New Hampshire, on a long grassy slope off the foot of a hill in the middle of the farming country around Lacoshua. It was a small cemetery over one hundred years old, with old stones leaning woefully among the waving grass…In the distance one saw the misty lands and pine woods of the old New Hampshire earth…

The procession got underway…They proceeded through the streets of little Lacoshua following the beflowered hearse, and the townspeople, who all knew the name of the dead man, paused in their Monday morning affairs to watch. The men removing their hats –briefly—before walking on. Somewhere a church bell was ringing, and everywhere Locoshuans knew that George Martin had died…

On a highway one rainy night [later] in the summer of that year, by glistening waters of a river in a place not far from the lights of a town a big red truck stopped at the one-light junction…Peter Martin in his black leather jacket, carrying the old canvass bag in which all his poor needments for a long journey were packed, got down from the truck. “Don’t worry about me,” he cried waving. “It’s not raining hard at all. See? Just a drizzle. I’ll be alright.”

And Peter was alone in the rainy night. He was on the road again, traveling the continent westward, going off to further and further years; alone, looking down along the shore in remembrance of the dearness of his father’s life.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Memorial Service at the UU Church in Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was for a woman named Nori. She was about 10 years my junior and had died from pancreatic cancer. Nori discovered Unitarian Universalism by way of the Nashua UU Church in the early years of my ministry there, and very quickly became involved in the life of the congregation. I felt honored to be her minister.

While in Nashua she met the man she married. I officiated the wedding. Her husband’s name was David; but for reasons I’ve never learned, he was known by all as “Rags.” One of the readers at their wedding said to Nori, “You may never have riches, Nori, but you’ll always have Rags.” And she did. They were a wonderful couple.

In time Nori and Rags relocated to Peterborough, and connected with the UU Church there. I’d not heard from, or about, them for some time when I learned of Nori’s death. I did not take part in the service. I only wanted to be present and listen to the tributes and remembrances for Nori. She combined the skills of a software engineer, a gourmet baker of wonderful goodies, and a well accomplished poet.

The ways in which she showed her love, care, and concern both for those closest to her, as well as for what she regarded as her global human family were really remarkable, and very well attested to. Her life embodied some of the words we’ll sing later in our closing hymn: “Then when life is done for me, let love be my legacy.”

It was about a 45-minute, night-time ride home for me after the service. It gave me time to reflect, once again, on the ways in which we are remembered once our lives have run their course. And, to witness how one is remembered, as I had just done, in some very moving ways, inevitable prompts the question of, “So, what’s going to be said about me when my time comes? How will I be remembered?” This is what I’d like to devote some thought to now in this annual Service of Remembrance.

I happen to be in a calling and profession that calls on me to assist in just this kind of remembering when it comes to the, now, countless memorial services I’ve helped prepare and officiate. While each of the lives I’ve been asked to assist in memorializing is unique and special—especially, of course, to the persons who were a part of them—I’ve also come to recognize some common themes that have given me some insight into how we are most often, and most likely, remembered once our lives are done. I’d like to share some of those insights in this Service of Remembrance at the head of a New Year.

What is it I hear most often when remembrances of a person’s life are offered? The most striking thing for me, actually, is how little I hear about how the person made his or her living, or about how much money they earned. The family may want the person’s career or occupation recognized, or the company for whom the deceased person worked cited. These are significant pieces of most people’s lives. And if it goes beyond that, what is generally asked to be remembered is what the person meant to his or her co-workers.

Practically every conversation I’ve had in preparing for a memorial service has borne out the truth of a statement made by Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” I hear very little about what a person acquired over the course of a life-time. Yes, there are certain worthy accomplishments achieved in the course of a career that are sometimes recalled; but nearly everything I hear about a person is about what they gave far more than what they gained. “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”

Along with the ways in which you gave of yourself, and what your personal passions were, you will also, believe it or not, be remembered for how well you made people laugh. I don’t necessarily mean how good your jokes were (a good thing in my case), but the things you did to lighten people’s spirits.

More often than not, in my conversations, the family and friends will want some funny incident or amusing trait recalled about the person who has passed on. Some of that, to be sure, is for the purpose of bringing some levity; as a way of off-setting the grief that is being felt. But it runs deeper than that. We’re remembered for the joy we brought into people’s lives, for how we lifted their spirits, for how we enabled them to laugh at life as well as take it seriously. It is an extremely rare conversation I have about the deceased, whatever the circumstances surrounding the death, where at some point some laughter has not come forth.

Still another common theme I hear has to do with how “at home” a person was with him/herself; how well they conveyed the sense of knowing who they were, where they stood, and how much self-respect and self-acceptance they had. Some phrases I’ve often heard spoken, in a very approving and admiring way, are: “She let you know where you stood with her…He was pretty clear with himself about who he was and what he wanted…She could easily listen to others because she was so well grounded herself…He didn’t often feel like he had to prove himself because he had an inner confidence.” If you are well grounded in the life you are living, whatever it may be that provides that grounding for you, it will be noticed and well remembered.

Moving on, we are also well remembered for how “religious” we were. I find a certain irony in being someone who occasionally gets called on to lead the service when the deceased was, as is often put to me, “not a very religious person.” The family still wants a minister to conduct the service, and figures a UU minister will fit the bill.

In these cases what is generally meant by the phrase “not very religious” is that the deceased was not a member of a particular religious community, did not subscribe to a prescribed set of beliefs, and did not adhere to a particular set of religious practices or observances. At that level I can understand and accept the phrase “not very religious.”

But then I’ll be told about how the person loved and revered and savored life; how she or he respected the earth and its creatures, or cultivated a sense of awe, mystery, and wonder at the Larger and Mysterious Life that surrounds us all. I hear such things as all that, and I end up thinking, “Well s/he sounds pretty religious to me.” And if the situation seems right, I’ll even say that out loud.

Religion, as I’ve expressed it here previously, is our response to life at the deepest levels. It is the ways in which we seek connection to Life. It is the ways in which we discover and extract meaning from Life. It is the ways in which we say “yes” to Life in the face of the reality that it is not ours to have forever. More times than I can recall now I’ve heard the statement, “Well, mom or dad wasn’t what you’d call a religious person, but…” and then everything that comes on the other side of that “but” more often than not tells me just what a religious person he or she actually was.

To take us in a somewhat different direction now, recalling and honoring the memory of those closest to us can also be a time of personal assessment; a time for some personal inventory. It can call forth the challenging consideration of “where do I now go with my life from here.”

This gets me back to the reading with which I led off this homily. It’s from, as noted, Jack Kerouac’s first published novel The Town and the City which came out seven years prior to On the Road. On the surface the passage comes off as a very rhapsodic and pastoral rendition of the character George Martin, who is a fictionalized version of Jack’s father Leo Kerouac. But below the surface, as is played out in the book, is a struggle taking place in the life of George’s son, Peter Martin. Peter Martin is Jack Kerouac’s persona in the novel. Peter, or Jack, is struggling with the life he feels drawn to, knowing it will run counter to the desires and expectations his father has of him.

When Leo died he and his wife were living in Queens, New York. They moved there shortly after Jack was accepted into Columbia University on a football scholarship. Leo’s body was sent back to Nashua, the town in which he and his wife had grown up, for burial. Following his funeral Jack went back to New York and began writing The Town and the City. He wrote it largely as an attempt to come to terms with the life and death of his father. In the book, the central character, along with George Martin is George’s son, Peter Martin. Peter Martin, like Jack, is both a gifted athlete and a voracious consumer of all kinds of literature. He aspires to be a writer. He also has a decidedly vagabond spirit about him.

The last chapter of The Town and the City, as you it heard earlier, opens on this note: “They buried George Martin in New Hampshire…in the middle of the farming country around Lacoshua…in the distance one saw the misty lands and pine woods of the old New Hampshire earth…” There are, truth to tell, no “misty lands and pine woods of old New Hampshire earth” to be seen anywhere near the cemetery on which Kerouac bases this passage. It is just a few miles from my home in Nashua. But we’ll grant him his poetic license.

What leads up to the rhapsodic sounding chapter from which I read, is the portrayal of a tremendously tempestuous father/son relationship. Leo Kerouac grew up in the working-class French-Canadian Catholic neighborhoods of Nashua and Lowell. When his son, Jack, got his football scholarship to Ivy League Columbia University, Leo saw it as the fulfillment of the classic immigrant dream. He works hard so his children—in this case his son—can, as the saying goes, “make good in America.”

But Jack could not stay on the path his parents so dearly wanted for him. He shunned what he saw as the confinements of academic life so he could pursue his passion for writing; and dropped out of Columbia in his sophomore year. He made friends with people like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, whom his parents feared and even loathed. And then his father died of cancer at the age of 57.

Kerouac, as just noted, wrote this book—his first novel—following the death of his father, whom he’d hurt and angered because of his dreams of becoming a writer. But he still gives him a tribute of love and respect in the concluding chapter.

But Jack isn’t quite finished with the book once he finishes eulogizing his father. Instead he gives his persona in the novel, Peter Martin, the last word: “On a rainy night in the summer of that year Peter Martin, carrying his old canvass bag got down from the truck…He was on the road again, going off to further and further years…looking along the shore in remembrance of the dearness of his father…”

Jack gives his father the respect that is due him, and then takes up his own life—wherever it may lead him.

The message here is that even those lives that we touch most closely during our time on earth, are not lives we will ultimately control or direct. Others will look back to us as their ancestors—they may well love and respect us for that. Those who will take the measure of your life will choose lives of their own—which will in turn be measured by others as they become ancestors. The circle of life continues.

Be remembered for what you give to others; be remembered for the things you feel most passionately about, and for the causes you champion; be remembered for the joy you bring to the lives of others; be remembered for the ways you respect and affirm life; for the ways you embrace and love life; be remembered for the comfort and acceptance you feel towards yourself. Live to be remembered in these ways.

Finally, be remembered in such a way that you can say in the words of our closing hymn what I witnessed in the life of Nori: “Then when life is done with me, let love be my legacy.”

Rev. Steve Edington
January 8, 2018

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