In the depths of our grief, we begin to memorialize the one we loved. Making funeral plans, designing tributes, writing songs, and sharing photographs and memories help us hold on to what we can of the one we’ve lost and the life we shared with them. Cemeteries house the efforts to make permanent what was transient: memories of those who touched the lives of others. The desire to keep a loved one alive in memory is reflected in naming foundations, laws, parks, buildings, children and grandchildren after someone.
By having our loved ones remembered, we ensure that the part of ourselves that is entwined with them continues on. In preserving the ones with whom we shared life, we protect the portions of our identity we owe to them. Should they be forgotten, some of who we are is at risk of being lost, too. The integrity of our self is in jeopardy when we consider their existence becoming lost even to memory. As long as they are being remembered, they continue to exist, if only in our awareness.
Memorializing is not only about keeping someone alive in our own memory. It is a social activity intended to preserve a life in a collective memory. It is also an effort to sustain a memory through the future, long after the lives of those who knew and loved the person have also passed on. The effort to motivate others to remember as well is the highest form of acknowledgment of a person’s value. Originally written in memory of Marilyn Monroe, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” was rewritten to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales. The song expresses the longing for a lasting presence after Diana’s tragic death: “your footsteps will always fall here along England’s greenest hills. Your candle’s burned out long before your legend ever will... This torch we’ll always carry for our nation’s golden child.”
In 1992, near the end of a long career in show business, George Burns recorded the song “Gracie” as a tribute to his wife of 38 years, Gracie Allen. Although nearly 30 years had passed since her death, Burns sang: “Gracie, the love of my life... She’s always with me, all of the time... she made me the man that I am.” At his induction into the International Humor Hall of Fame, Burns followed his thank you with, “I wish Gracie was here.” As he predicted, he did live to the age of 100, and as he wished he was interred with Gracie. As he instructed, the crypt’s marker was changed to: “Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again,” because he wanted Gracie to have top billing.
Musical tributes are not the exclusive purview of the famous. Fred Stobaugh, a 96-year-old widower, wrote the song “Oh Sweet Lorraine” in memory of his wife of 75 years. His desire to memorialize his wife is evident in that he entered the song in a competition with the lyrics: “No I don’t wanna move on. Oh the memories always linger on; Oh sweet Lorraine, that’s why I wrote this song.”
Alan Jackson wrote “Sissy’s Song” as a tribute to Leslie Fitzgerald, a woman who worked in his house, after she was killed in a motorcycle accident. Jackson describes Sissy as a “lovely, sweet young woman; daughter, wife and mother,” and hopes for her immortality: “I just have to believe she flew up to heaven on the wings of angels by the clouds and stars and passed where no one sees.”
This notion that one day our loved one will be “remembered” by those who had never known or even met them is the ultimate gesture of the struggle for immortality. It is only in the lives and minds of those who come after us that we can continue to live on. Making a personal memory public transforms the mission to make a life immortal into a shared responsibility, relieving us from the total responsibility we know we can’t complete once we ourselves are gone. Ultimately, the effort to perpetuate the memory of our loved ones cannot be completely satisfying, because no degree of description in words, images or music can capture the essence of the person we loved. The recognition of the futility of trying to extend the memory of loved ones beyond those who knew them is acknowledged in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox funeral prayer “вічная пам’ять” or “eternal memory.” Entrusting the loved one to God’s Memory assures perfect remembrance beyond our lifetime.
It is a heavy burden to bear the responsibility for preserving the memory of the one we loved into an indefinite future beyond our own life. Sharing the memory frees us to return our attention to the living and to begin living in a world without their physical presence. The Jewish prayer “We Remember Them” expresses the belief that the souls of our loved ones live on through those who remember them in all times and circumstances: “When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them... When we have joys we yearn to share, we remember them.” By extending life to them in remembrance, we are free to live through and beyond our grief: “As long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”