Since introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera in 1900, people have used photography to document their lives, to create memories. I never quite embraced that. I don’t enjoy seeing myself in photographs but also on many occasions I preferred being in the moment rather than documenting it through a lens.
Recently, however, I attended an event that made me think.
A dear old lady had passed away at the blessed age of 93 and I was attending her funeral. After the burial the wider family gathered for a dinner. Afterwards, a photo presentation was given, showing the main stages of her life. Pictures about her youth on a Finnish farm in the 1920’s and 30’s, pictures in which Finland looked like a distant, different country. Pictures of her interacting with family and friends, which not only showed her affection towards others but also the affection of others towards her.
After the presentation, folks got up and shared stories and anecdotes about her, stories full of warmth and affection. I always thought that funerals were for the living rather than the dead. An act of closure, a means to go on with life after loss. But this event (which turned out to become the longest funeral I ever attended) was the celebration of a person and a life.
We can’t live without touching other lives or, in general, without affecting the world. Every one of us leaves a legacy, something we said (or not said), we did (or not did) and that influenced others and might continue to influence others over generations. No gesture is too small that it couldn’t become part of our legacy. Things we did might live on as a family, or other, tradition, something we said might have influenced how others see the world. I always liked the idea of the Music of the Ainur in J.R.R. Tolkiens “Silmarillion”: every life as a note or melody in a gigantic piece of music. Deceptively seeming insignificant on its own but essential for the whole fabric of live and reality.
Maybe, at this funeral it would have worked also without the photographs and merely through the shared stories and memories. Still, I had a feeling that the photographs tied everyone together into a community of remembrance.
I do have very fond memories of this lady and among other things she was the only one I personally knew who ever attended a Beatles gig in London during the 1960’s. But the event touched me also on a more general level, even left me elated. It was a farewell, full of dignity and humanity, respect and civility.
It has been said that no man is dead while he is still remembered. I think our legacy goes even deeper. Through my parents, teachers, family and friends, generations of people now forgotten or unknown have contributed to my education, development and to who I am. We always and unavoidably stand on the shoulders of others. The simple act of remembrance at this funeral seemed to me a worthy celebration of this fact.
So, on a dark and rainy afternoon in a village in the countryside, among people I hardly ever met before, I witnessed an act of deep humanity. And I realized that it is not so hard: if we feel hurt by the lack of respect and civility that seems to grow everywhere we just have to practice them a little more often. Celebrating a life, me thinks, is a good point to start.