Memory, Inevitable Futility, and Temple Work

Banksy said that “everybody dies twice, One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” For much of humanity that second moment happens in a Latter-day Saint temple. 

–My brother Carl. 

I have a morbid interest in old graveyards. The weather-chipped stone is often all that is left of the passions, struggles, upheavals, deep fights, and deep loves of lost worlds of these people’s lived experience. In many cases the only direct evidence the universe has that the person ever existed is a fading name on a tombstone and maybe a few bytes in a genealogy program. 

Obviously this can get quite depressing when thinking of our own mortality. Maybe the words I’m now typing will technically be stored somewhere on the Internet Archive for a few hundred years, but I’m not under any illusions that with the torrent of new data and information moving in that they’ll be taken off the dusty digital shelf, as it were, and leafed through (if everybody who ever read a piece is dead, was it ever written?). 

George Elliot wrote “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,” but the fact is that many who lived a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs probably didn’t have much effect on the future one way or the other. 

Back before I converted away from intellectualism, I used to think that academic work was another pathway to posthumous relevance. I wanted to be the person that had the number of books I’d published in my obituary, who spent his last days putting in the footnotes for his last book until the end. (when asked what he would change about his rigorous writing schedule if it was his last day on earth, Isaac Asimov dryly responded that he would type faster). 

And then, in the process of my deconversion, I actually witnessed such a thing happening, and it just felt very tragic, like a dog that was chasing after the same car since graduate school. I realized that, and excuse the surfeit of metaphors for a moment—scholarly contributions were like a village buried in sediment over time, with your contributions becoming footnotes to footnotes to footnotes and humanity moves on without really noticing you were ever there. (This is quadruply-true in the softer fields where the use of the systematic build-on-prior-knowledge model is more arguable). 

But the thing is, you can take that approach with just about everything. It’s a truism that you can’t take your money with you, and the businessman dispositionally obsessed with earning money to compensate for some emotional deficit has been a cliche since Citizen Kane, but it’s also true for things that we see as being less crass such as hobbies and other non-monetary accomplishments. 

My grandparents were anchors of the West Bountiful community for a half century, and grandma probably taught hundreds of piano students, but you wouldn’t know that from their funeral attendance, which was fine but not staggeringly huge. The fact is that they had outlived their primary cohort and all of those other younger people had moved on and were busy living in their moment. Same thing with my wife’s grandfather, who taught at BYU for decades and sired a large, accomplished family that went on to have large, accomplished families of their own. It’s harder to get a chapel overflow-level funeral than you might think. 

Once the patriarchs and matriarchs of a clan pass away the individual units tend to start going their separate ways, and all the anecdotes, fun memories, and emotionally imprinted experiences get buried underneath the upcoming generation that are going through their current “now.” And I understand this, if I spent all the time living through my ancestors I wouldn’t have time for my own experiences. Still, the fact that everything will get buried does raise all sorts of uncomfortable existential questions about why we do anything (although I’ve gone down this rabbit hole before, so I won’t indulge in going any deeper here).  

Incidentally, I recently took my second-born to go do baptisms for the dead the first time, and when the names come up on the screen I feel an inverted sense of what I feel in graveyards. Instead of an ashes-to-ashes, Ozymandian sense of futility and pointlessness you feel the continuation of the passions, struggles, and loves of the billions of humans past. It was not for naught, or ground down under the relentless march of time. At my grandma’s funeral at first I assumed that she was there, present, in the chapel watching the celebration of her life, but then I realized that might not be the case. If she is experiencing everlasting celestial burnings and worlds without end our little death rituals on this fallen planet might not be worth much. She’ll see us all in a few moments, relatively speaking, anyway. I don’t know whether she was there or not; but I do assume that Franz Sorensen who was born in 1756 in Denmark was in the Washington DC temple last night. Our temple theology pointedly argues that it is not all pointless and subsumed either under some black oblivion or some heavenly existence where nothing in our life besides accepting Jesus really mattered eternally. That the struggles, family, and memory are part of a continual path that will continue in the hereafter seems vital for taking any of that seriously in the here. 

One of my favorite Latter-day Saint theological quotes is from non-Latter-day Saint physicist Freeman Dyson:

No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory. 

Franz’s baptism last night was a concrete leg of his journey towards his own “constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory,” even though he only exists on this earth as a Latter-day Saint genealogical record, maybe a mossed-over tombstone somewhere, and maybe a few diluted nucleotides carried by distance descendants (if he’s lucky), and that is beautiful.

7 comments for “Memory, Inevitable Futility, and Temple Work

  1. I’ve decided that a modesty attended funeral is the sign of a long and full life as you have outlived lived all your peers. This is a good thing.

    Every funeral I’ve attended that has overflowed the cultural hall has been someone who has died in the prime of life, way too young.

    Having made it to 70 and still going strong, I don’t expect many attendees outside of family at my funeral

  2. @ Karl: I’ve noticed that too; funeral attendance is correlated with youth as much as anything else.

  3. The primary room wont be full at my funeral….no matter when I die. True story, as a bishop I did a gave side service for 2 attendees. Was a very odd experience. I dont recall the details but there were some details….

  4. I think perhaps believers are excessively focused on the future in general and the after-life in particular.

    The present is full of grace and wonder, as is the (remembered past); they are their own reward. That no one will speak one’s name in 100 years (or less) seems quite beside the point of experience and memory.

  5. @Rec911: I’ve wondered about that. I’ve only been to funerals of Latter-day Saint patriarchs and matriarchs; with average marriage, birth, and close friendship rates going the way they are we’re going to see a lot of 1-2 people graveside services in the future.

    @ Frederick: There’s something to be said for that for some activities. A juicy steak or a fun evening with friends is meaningful in itself in the moment, but it seems like many of our fundamental strivings are tied to some sort of future existence and permanence for the fruits of our efforts.

  6. May I copy your quote at top of post for a small poster to put on stake family history bulletin board? I will attribute it to “Carl” with no other identification. I will also add a note of encouragement to keep names alive by Indexing on FamilySearch!

    I do a lot of indexing and find that many names pull at my heartstrings.

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