How do you want to be remembered? I ask myself this question at least once about a week. Mortality haunts me. Maybe it’s the onset of old age. I have only two good decades left. What have I done in the last five and a half that’s worth remembering?
It doesn’t matter.
On my walk to Montana from Kansas City, I’d witnessed little graveyards off the side of the Oregon Trail, small enclosures of stone with no headstones or other markers that indicated the names of the people buried there. They were noted only for their proximity to a sight where tourists stopped on their pilgrimages along the trail. I had stumbled, sometime literally, other small burial plots next to wagon ruts in the sagebrush far from the beaten path.
My experience reminded me that other settlers lay in unmarked ground, sometimes under foot, sometimes many miles from the nearest road. It made me think of the untold numbers of Indians and their ancestors who died over the course of 30,000 years from internecine battles over territory or ransoms, and more recently, Old World diseases, and Army attacks or settlers’ guns in the wilds. In my mind’s eye, I walk my route again, this time scanning the hills and plains around me. Nameless dead scatter over the Great Plains never to be seen again.
Then, there are those tiny country cemeteries I came across in central Kansas on one of my many pilgrimages to the Flint Hills. Someone or some association paid attention to those sites and trimmed grass and pulled weedy saplings, allowing the occasional visitor the freedom to view gravestones without hindrance. Other of those cemeteries lay forgotten, overgrown, lush and green as nature took back what humans once claimed.
When I was in my teens and twenties, my mates and I would repair to a tiny patch of dense woods not far from my childhood house. We drank there, far from the prying eyes of neighbors, parents, and cops. The grove grew there only because a small cemetery partitioned it off from development around it. Fully mature oaks and walnuts engulfed gravestones. Grapevines hanging from the branches of those trees wound around other stones. Many of the markers had no script on them.
Gone, forgotten, a small stone with a name and some dates, perhaps a scripture quote. What were these people remembered for and for how long? A generation, maybe? Two? Then, they became anonymous, melancholy testament to the fact that they once lived. They were remembered for nothing they accomplished. Whether they succumbed to disease or hard work or age, they were nobodies.
In Kansas City’s inner city, a cemetery that once was burial place for both the Town of Kansas and Westport. Union cemetery is now a park. A historical association and the Parks Department keep it up. The grounds are hauntingly beautiful. I used to take my kids there for walks and picnics, blankets spread between the stones whose anachronistic names puzzled the children.
These people, too, regardless of the care that other, historically minded people put into them, were nobodies. There were names, dates, and quotes. Some stones were monuments, standing tens of feet above the other grave markers. One part of the cemetery had been set aside for Kansas City’s Chinese immigrants, the native language of these dead chiseled into the stones. Who could read them? Who among them had family still in the area? What did the script mean?
The huge, park-like cemeteries, those with stones and those with simple, easy-to-care-for ground-level markers, are supposed to immemorialize the dead. Again, those markers get visits from immediate families or from genealogically interested descendants. But the dead’s dreams and secrets, their individualities get lost in the great expanse of the grounds and in time. When everyone has a name, then everyone become anonymous. We all become anonymous in time.
Think for a minute about those we remember—the statesmen and women, the historically significant movers and tastemakers, the writers and composers and poets. After a century or two or three, we remember them, hold them in esteem. For every one of them, however, there are literally millions of their compatriots who we don’t remember. Maybe historians resurrect some names, delve into the personalities, and illustrate the lives of a few unknowns. But they, too, will be left behind in the unfolding of time.
I believe, though, no matter how forgotten and lost they are to us, everyone who has lived and died survives today in the physical and cultural and social DNA that binds us as a species. Even the lost Incas and Aztecs and Mayans, those people we learned about in school and seem so completely extinguished, have descendants. Literally, their DNA survives today in the people who inherited their physical and mental characteristics. As we unearth their secrets, they change the knowledge base, they change us.
We all live forever. The echoes of a yawp in a vale become more diffuse over time, but the valley is never the same once that human voice penetrates its surface. The voice has shifted the foundations of the ravines and streams and bluffs. The sound waves have moved the stone, the stone moved the rabbit, the rabbit climbed out of its hole in a little different way, the hawk ate the rabbit that before the voice entered the valley would not have come out in the open at that particular moment.
Even when our species breathes its last, as it will, we live on. We have altered the earth’s surface, its water, its air. We changed the course of rivers, drank that glass of water. In a couple billion years, the sun will the earth and inherit the changes we have made. The sun will be different as we have changed that which will become it. Our lives survive in the universe, no matter how insignificant our tiny planet is in the vastness of creation.
Then, I must face that even those people lying dead in unmarked ground here or in Europe or Africa, even our hominid predecessors have altered my life. If the valley is different, then so am I. If I am part of the culture, then I inherit its foundations and become a part of its DNA. All my actions, thoughts, feelings, no matter how imperceptive, has shifted the world on its axes.
I have done some things. People will remember me for them and for my personality. For a while. Sooner or later, I will join the nameless and the anonymous. I will have made a mark, however slight, on this world.
Despite all this thinking, I look at the anonymous names in cemeteries and think of the unnamed dead and feel loss. Nothing eases the immeasurable weight of loss. Every death brings loss. No matter how much I comfort myself that my dead friends and colleagues are immortal. At every death, I am more bitter, less satisfied, more doubtful, less confident of my place in the world. In grief, I find it exceedingly difficult to remember that these people have made my life better, that they influenced me in ways I cannot comprehend. They have helped make me who I am, and, therefore, are part of me.