By now we’ve all heard about the amazing Christopher Lee’s death. It’s funny how you don’t know how fantastic someone is until they die. When Leonard Nimoy went where no one has gone before (and returned) how much more awesome he was spilled out into the public discourse. This is not normally something I would blog about. Of course I love the Lord of the Rings movies, and LN was Spock so, um, epic, but not really something I’d find the need to write about, but then I ran across this on my tumblr dashboard.
And I was overcome with feels. Memory…is a huge thing for me. Being remembered, not being forgotten. I think about this all the time. It’s the thread that runs through my most treasured narratives: the paradigm of remembrance. So long as people remember you, you’ll never truly die. Shakespeare has been dead for half a millennium, but his name will go on through the ages. Antiquity will never leave him behind. The earth will become a cold, black stone when all that is living has turned to dust, but those who remain to carry forth stories will know the works of the Bard.
But for us poor and grieving who have no great deeds, who shall remember our names? In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars Hazel and Gus have the following conversation.
“How many dead people do you think there are?”
“Like, how many fictional people died in that fictional movie? Not enough,” he joked.
“No, I mean, like, ever. Like how many people do you think have ever died?”
“I happen to know the answer to the question,” he said. “There are seven billion living people, and about ninety-eight billion dead people.”
“Oh,” I said. I’d thought that maybe since population growth had been so fast, there were more people alive than all the dead combined.
“There are about fourteen dead people for every living person,” he said. The credits continued rolling. It took a long time to identify all those corpses, I guess. My head was still on his shoulder. “I did some research on this a couple of years,” Augustus continued. “I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”
“And are there?”
“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one remembers the person he wrote Sonnet Fifty-five about.”
I think of the “fourteen people” conversation all the time. If we all remembered fourteen people than no one would ever have to be forgotten. This paradigm is also implemented in the animated film The Book of Life, which features La Muerte whom I absolutely adore. Her look is just exquisite.
In the movie the dead people with loved ones still alive to honor them on the Day of the Dead dwell in the Land of the Remembered while those who have no one wither away in the Land of the Forgotten. But…once all those who love you are dead, will you not fade into the Land of the Forgotten? When no one is left to remember you, who will light candles on your behalf so you don’t become one of them? When all are gone and dead as dust, then no one will even be memory.
If I wanted to be morbid and nihilistic I would continue along this vein. In the end when there is nothing left and only dust shall spin in the silence, there will be no memories. There will be nothing, as it was before so shall it be forever. No one will be a memory and I remain in this existential crisis. It’s something we all must face: eternal oblivion. So long as there’s consciousness left to remember, then some will not be forgotten, but once consciousness blinks out into the darkness, then there will be nothing left. There is a name that means “memory,” or more so “remembered by God.” Zachary. FFVII is literally about memory.
Finally, Homer’s Iliad comes to mind because of what Achilles was told. It was the choice of every man. Stay home, be safe, raise a family, and be forgotten. Your children will remember you and perhaps your grandchildren, but after that, no one will. Live the safe but long life and be lost to the ages, but paint yourself with glory, (more than likely) die young, and everyone will know your name. Achilles wanted the glorious life and so choose to go with Agamemnon to Troy because though the warrior knew by prophecy that he would die, he also knew he would not be forgotten. Death is an empty door. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.
“Who has choices need not choose,
We don’t who have none,
We can love, but what we lose,
What is gone is gone.”
-Peter S Beagle “The Last Unicorn”
Asking me my beliefs about continued existence is as empty a door as death so seems. I don’t know. I want to believe something. I want to think we become more than mere memories (not that memory is a mean thing). I want Augustus’s words from The Fault In Our Stars “I don’t believe we return to haunt or comfort the living or anything, but I think something becomes of us” to be true.
As awful as the world of FFVII is in its dystopian gloom, at the very least you know what happens to you after you die. I believe this was what first endeared me to the story, but currently it is John Green who has had the most comforting and profound things to say about the subject. His Looking for Alaska has the gorgeous line that I return to for its hopeful resonance.
“Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”
I hope it is, too.