Six Funerals and the idea of Legacy

While I was at BYU years ago one of my best friends asked me to go with him and his wife to Cedar City to the Utah Shakespearean Festival. His wife’s father had served a mission with the founder, Fred Adams, and her family had gone frequently over the years since Adams founded the festival.

Thirty-four years later, I still go to the festival each summer with the same group of friends. So when I learned that Fred Adams passed away February 5th at the age of 89, I mourned because of his influence on my life. I was particularly impressed by the human Fred Adams portrayed at his funeral.

Fred’s passing is just the most recent of six that have had an impact on me over the past year. I have long admired Fred’s vision and persistence in creating an institution that benefits the lives of hundreds of thousands. Part of me has a longing to create something as significant as the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

His death followed close on the passing of Clayton Christensen. He too was someone lauded as much for how he treated the individual as his accomplishments. [I found this podcast tribute notable for pointing out that Christensen practiced what he preached at work as well as at Church.] Like Adams, I admired Christensen for his accomplishments and for his integrity.

These losses were significantly less personal than others I experienced. Last year a neighbor, who I frequently visited and tried to help, passed away. He was a holocaust survivor who was suspicious of everyone and trusting of no one. While I knew him his life was marked by self-imposed poverty and near-isolation. He died alone, had no funeral and just two of us attended his burial. Also last year an elderly sister in our ward passed away. While she had family at her side, they bickered and fought over details of her treatment and who got what of her few things.

In contrast, the passing of my father and my father-in-law last year were loving and peaceful. My father-in-law passed away first, near the same time as my neighbor and as the woman in our ward. He will always be remembered as someone who thought carefully before he spoke, and who was kind to everyone. His funeral was a celebration of his life.

My father passed away December 16th, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. While helping to clean out his home last year before its sale, I was struck by the photos and recognitions on his office wall—pictures of him with the government figures he worked with—George Romney, Gerald Ford, James Watt, Warren Burger—as well as with the church authorities he knew and served alongside.

Looking at that wall I felt a sense of loss and futility. I know these remembrances and achievements gave my father pleasure, and a sense of the value of his life. Is this how we measure the worth of a person? I thought of the lines from Kipling:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
   On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Somehow I don’t feel the same pride about my father’s recognitions and memories—or at least my feelings are very mixed. The rational, secular part of me sees that my father was at best a bit player in the drama of history. And the part of me who loved my father sees that these things weren’t really who he was, and don’t really matter.

My neighbor’s only wall hanging was a certificate of his service in the US Army. The elderly sister who passed away last year had pictures of family and a singer she loved. My father-in-law’s home was filled with pictures of family. My own home is filled with a cluttered mixture of family pictures and art1.

What kind of legacy should we look for then? What should we be hanging on our walls?

I have a dislike for words like “legacy” and “heritage”. They portray a certainty about who we are and what our past is about that gives me discomfort. I find it irritating that they get used so much around the U.S. (especially in Utah and in parts of the South). These words need a modifier — something to indicate what kind of legacy or heritage we are talking about. They can be both good or bad. Legacy and heritage exist regardless; and like human beings they are almost always a mixture of good and bad things. No one wants to celebrate a bad legacy. And yet in much of the southern US celebrating the past also means celebrating a legacy of hate and a heritage of fear.

So I’m still mixed in how I feel about these things. Part of me wants to save the things from my father’s wall. And part of me wants very much to establish something that makes a positive difference in the lives of others—like Fred Adams and Clayton Christensen. And I’m still pulling apart my motivations for this: is this my pride? my vanity? or is it really about helping others?

I suppose it could be worse; I could be certain about my motivations.

Show 1 footnote
  1. This reminds me of the statement that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind; and the response that an empty desk is therefore the sign of an empty mind. At least my walls aren’t empty.

19 comments for “Six Funerals and the idea of Legacy

  1. I’m not sure I’m understanding this posting. Please don’t think less of your father because of your perception that his contribution is small compared to others you mentioned. Our God might see things differently. And please don’t think less of all those from the southern U.S. because of the actions of their forbears or your present sensibilities. We all live, we all die. We don’t choose when or where we will be born. A thousand years from now, if we are still measuring time, I suppose that no one else will think of your father as less than Clayton Christensen based on their mortal opportunities and achievements.

    My mother left me an item that was precious to her because her father made it. It is meaningful to me because I knew both of them. It will be less meaningful to my son and perhaps irrelevant to the children he might sire. That’s the way things are.

    The way legacy is measured, I will be counted as a nothing like almost all other persons in this world. I have had impact for good on a few people, but nothing notable. I’m like your father. I do have faith, hope, and charity, all centered in Jesus Christ, and full confidence that He will keep his promises. That will matter.

    My grandfather didn’t think he wanted a mansion above — he sang the song, “Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of Glory land — in the shade of the tree of life that it may ever stand — where I can hear the angels sing and praise Jesus’ name — Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of Glory land.”

  2. ji, it looks like you got the post just fine, from what your comment says. I’m conflicted about all this, and because much of it is emotion, its not like understanding something can change my feelings easily.

    Yes, almost all persons in the world will be counted as nothing — in the world’s way of measuring at least. BUT, even in the Lord’s way of looking at things, some contributions or “legacies” are more significant than others, and I think many of us struggle with the idea that we might not contribute much, even when we know mentally that whether we have a very positive legacy or not isn’t that important.

    I’m conflicted about all this. What is the measure of a person?

  3. This reminds me of Christoph Koch’s description of his feelings upon the death of his colleague and partial mentor, Francis Crick. That all of the knowledge and memory Crick had obtained was now locked and decaying in the synapses of his now non-working brain and what a loss that truly was. Disregarding, for a moment, the notion that the spirit of a person takes that information with them, we might yearn to be able to reach into someone’s mind and pull out all of the things new knew, loved, remembered, and cherished. A nice thought until one realizes that we’d also see all the regretted stuff and the mess of conflicting motivations that are part of our natures. Those things are ours to keep and all the outward expressions of it are how we paint the world. I may care about a person’s legacy, but it is just a part of why they might be important to me. I cherish my now deceased father-in-law’s artwork. In many ways, he was not always an honorable man. But he also faced trials I never have, and he had a wonderfully unique view of the world. And his artwork is objectively thought provoking and beautiful. Creating an organization that does objectively good things, like your friend Fred Adams did, is an honorable thing, of all the things one might leave behind, that’s a pretty good one. We don’t all get to do that though. My father, who is still alive, was instrumental in building and growing a small company into a large one. It was fair to its employees and as such cultivated a lot of loyalty. It’s not perfect, but leaving something behind that has helped others put food on the table in a world where stable careers are harder and harder to come by, especially for the less educated, is something that will always matter to me personally. Whether or not is it vane to want to leave such behind is difficult to answer…the closest I can come to a purer motivation personally is “is my life pleasing to God?” I personally hope I leave enough behind so that at least my descendants will be motivated by my example be as good and to do as much good with what they’ve been given as they can.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Kent,

    Your father was certainly more than a face in the pictures on his wall. He was the first stake president with whom I had an adult relationship (after 10 years of being an adult myself). He taught me that church leaders could be truly humble, not the fake humble you see so often. (Incidentally, I was only vaguely aware of his professional life. Anything we knew about it had to be dragged out of him.) My most vivid memory of him is not what anybody would call flattering, but I think it is revealing. When the church started fully funding ward budgets based on sacrament meeting attendance, your dad called a bishops council to discuss the split between the wards and the stake. I was only a counselor in the Carrolton Ward bishopric, but for some reason the bishop dragged me to the meeting. I had never seen a church meeting like it before, nor have I since. Your dad proposed a certain split of the funds and the bishops went ballistic. They went on and on about how much more they needed the money at the ward level and how little they valued the the stake’s contribution. Your dad’s response was straight out of D&C 121. He did not call the bishops to repentance and he did not defend the stake leadership’s performance. He just listened and said basically, “:Brethren, I’m just here to serve you.” Ultimately, the split was shifted in favor of the wards (but not as much as the bishops wanted) and the working relationship between him and the bishops was preserved. His was an example I have tried to follow when I have been in leadership positions.I’m sure I am not alone.

  5. Related, Clayton Christensen turned his final class at HBS into an article and later a book titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

    I’ve pondered a lot on his observation elsewhere that, paraphrased by me much more poorly than he conveyed it, perhaps one of the largest differences between us and God is that our normal minds default to aggregating and hierarchies and legacy, because our minds are limited and need to simplify. But God isn’t concerned with, and doesn’t measure, our aggregate impact. Influence that matters isn’t in aggregate, it’s loving one-on-one.

  6. Last Lemming, thank you very much. Your memory of my father is very touching—I’ve passed it on to my siblings. I feel inadequate to fill his shoes in many ways.

  7. The Other Clark — yes, you’re right.

    D, thanks for mentioning Clayton’s book — I’ve read it and think its worth the time to read (and it’s not that long). And your citation of his view on these thoughts is perfect.

    Now if I could only get to the point where I accepted that emotionally. One of the downsides of having parents who believed in me, and who praised my abilities is that I have high expectations of myself. So its easy to feel like I’m not making a big enough difference in the lives of others and in the world. I’m sure I’m not the only one in that position.

  8. Trying to summarize a person’s life and value is an impossible task. As George Eliot articulated in the last sentence of his novel Middlemarch: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

    I believe the vast majority of great people perform unhistoric acts having lived hidden lives and now “rest in unvisited tombs.” Thank God for such people.

  9. Old Man, As you know that George Eliot was a woman, it might interest you to know that the Coventry ward used to meet in her house. I met my wife there when we came to build a new chapel for the ward.

    This is an interesting subject. There are accomplishments in various areas of life. My father died last year too. He was a builder so there were houses and motels he could point to as his creations. He joined the church in his 30s and was called on a building mission, and there are 3 chapels in the UK he supervised volunteer labour on, plus a bunch more he finished off. He then became church offices in Australia, and managed the supervisors constructing dozens more.
    He had 4 sons who have grown into productive human beings.
    He was also a man of his times, so was sexist, though not racist from memory. I have 4 daughters, he once told the only grandchild that visited him that he valued the grand children that carried his name more than those that didn’t.

    He was a bishop on a number of occasions.

  10. Referring to this
    I have 4 daughters, he once told the only grandchild that visited him that he valued the grand children that carried his name more than those that didn’t.

  11. My elderly father is struggling with this. Every conversation with him includes references to how important his stuff is (especially things he collected from travel and his artistic career portfolio). Suggestion that I might donate his stuff is deeply hurtful to him, but I’m not someone who cares about stuff (I toss everything which gets me into trouble with the rest of my family). I’ve read it is a common point of conflict between the older and younger generation.

    I guess in a certain sense, I see it as being about control. He wants a legacy. He wants to be remembered a certain way with all of these emblems of a successful life. But at the end of the day, the value in life isn’t this legacy. Even if we have an impact in the people/world around us, that is short-term. A thousand years from now (or a million), no one will know or care. Our true legacy is how we grew our own souls. And that we take with us.

  12. I love this song sung by Iris DeMent, made a bit more famous because it was used in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”:

    My life, it don’t count for nothing
    When I look at this world I feel so small
    My life, it’s only a season
    A passing September that no one will recall

    But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile
    And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurtin
    And I can make it seem better for a while

    My life, it’s half the way traveled
    And still I have not found my way out of this night
    My life, it’s tangled in wishes
    And so many things that just never turned out right

    But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile
    And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
    And I can make it seem better for a while

  13. Stephen, that’s wonderful. I haven’t watched the Handmaid’s Tale yet — I want to read the book first. But this poem is life encapsulated.

  14. I can relate Kent, as my parents are older and seem to care about unimportant things. Sadly, they could’ve cared about their health a bit more earlier in life, but now it’s almost too late to have all these surgeries, etc. I guess we do the best we can with what we have to work with and strive to have more to work with in order to bless others and our families (not necessarily physical things).

    I concur ReTx…my in-laws are always trying to save their “stuff” or give it to us or make sure it stays in the family, etc….because…history. I couldn’t care less about any of it.

    I’ve been blessed with opportunities that bring joy in my life, and I’ve also also been able to help and serve others in ways that some can’t. Bottom line: quit comparing and live your life to the fullest you’re able to and gain the experience(s) necessary for your growth that adds to increased knowledge. That will be different for everyone.

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