Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Plan to be Remembered, Revisited

I'm reposting an article I wrote 5 years ago at this time of the year. The information is still relevant so I thought I'd give it another go around...

I've spent a lot of time (years) on genealogy research and one of the most significant things I've come to realize in the course of my research is that most people don't plan to be remembered. Think about that for a moment and you'll realize how simple and profound that is. If people planned to be remembered we wouldn't have half the trouble we have finding them or learning about them! I don't think most people want to be forgotten when they die, so why don't they put some planning into being remembered?

The obvious reasons that come to mind are: thinking about one's mortality is uncomfortable; too busy living to think about dying; I haven't done anything important enough to be remembered for; too much bother, or in the case of those with immense egos... I don't have to try to be memorable, I already am! But there are other reasons why people don't plan to be remembered.

In the old days, the options for preserving something of one's self were much more limited than they are today. Take my ancestors for instance. They were were all poor peasants (is there any other kind?) in a poor country (Poland). Literacy was not an option for them (pretty much until my grandparents' generation). So they couldn't write their family history or an autobiography. Cameras, especially in the early days of photography, were only for the wealthy. So how could the common man preserve something of them self? Some could sketch or paint. Some could carve, sculpt, weave or sew. The rest? They would likely only be recorded in history as entries in their church parish registries for baptisms, marriages, and deaths. And in the case of Poland, such vital records weren't kept for common folk until the late 1700s. If they were lucky, they might get a tombstone and a grave that their family essentially rented for a time. Then they faded into obscurity when the next generation couldn't afford to pay their grave renewal fees.

These days things have changed dramatically. We have all sorts of ways of preserving something of ourselves to be remembered by. Even the poor farmer (modern day peasant) in Poland can read and write (Poland has a very high literacy rate (99.3%). So writing something becomes the most basic of options. Beyond that, in many countries around the world even the common man now has the ability to record themselves digitally in audio, video, or static photos. And while having a grave and tombstone may still indicate status or wealth in some areas of the world, in other areas it's not as important a way to be remembered as it used to be. More and more often people (at least in the U.S.) are choosing alternatives like cremation and opting for having a "foundation" created in their name, or a brick dedicated to them at a public venue.

But even with all the new options available for preserving something of ourselves many still won't do it. They'll leave it to their loved ones to remember them in an obituary or with a donation to their favorite charity. They'll hope that they'll be remembered kindly. They won't get it unless they've been involved in genealogy research... if you don't go out of your way to deliberately leave something of yourself to be remembered by you'll become just another of thousands of names on someone's tree. Future generations will look at your name and life dates and wonder about who you were and if they look like you or enjoy the same hobbies or talents.

As genealogists we know how much we would treasure an audio recording of gg grandma chatting merrily with her sisters or daughters in the kitchen while cooking up a holiday dinner. Wouldn't you just love to have that!?! Or how about a video of gg grandpa sitting around the table with some of the guys from the village at a simple Saturday night card game discussing the condition of the fields, the likelihood of rain in the next week, and their concerns about their lazy teenage children who want to sleep till noon? How precious that would be! And yet if you'd asked gg grandma and grandpa if they wanted their conversations recorded while they were cooking or their pictures taken while they played cards they probably would have laughed at the idea and probably protested too. But if you'd asked them if they would prefer to be remembered as real people, ordinary though they may be, or forgotten as anything more than just a name and date on the family tree what do you suppose they would answer?

Ordinary daily events can become real treasures if we just take the time and effort to record them. The thing is, we as genealogists can recognize this. We get it, in a way that others don't. It's up to us to carry our cameras, video and/or audio recorders with us when we have a chance to spend time with our loved ones. We need to find a way to get those photos that nobody wants taken. If we can't be so obtrusive as that than at the very least we can come home and write up a summary of the visit.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming soon. They are great opportunities to get together with loved ones and create a time capsule of sorts. All you have to include is a brief write up of who was there, perhaps their ages if known, the topics discussed over dinner, a short list of the foods served, a synopsis of the weather, and perhaps some personal reflections or observations. At a minimum we can all do that much.

If you have a camera, consider making a photo diary of the day. Record the images you might not normally think to photograph such as:
  • the environment/weather of the day
  • the home/restaurant you will be gathering at (even if it's your own!)
  • the food on the table
  • a family pet
  • the place where you go to worship if you do so
  • candid photos (mom in the kitchen, dad in front of the TV watching a football game, etc.)
  • maybe a photo of something new in your community, like a new library or restaurant that just opened (anything to mark time)
  • and don't forget to turn the camera on yourself!
For people with a digital camera this is virtually cost free. But even those with film cameras can capture the day with one roll of film. Even with developing costs it can be less than $10 for a genuine keepsake!

A collection of photos and a write up of the day, maybe throw in the front page of a local newspaper (or a screen shot from a news agency web site) and/or a podcast of CNN international news and you have one dandy, quickly and inexpensively put together time capsule that will preserve not only something of yourself but of everyone you spend holiday time with. Whether you burn your time capsule elements to CD/DVD, upload them for online storage, or print them out and stick them in a special file folder (or do all three), you can preserve something of yourself (and others!) with a little planning. You might consider burning a copy of your time capsule to DVD as a gift for the host/hostess. What a thoughtful and creative gift that would be! Heck, you might even want to make additional copies to send to friends and family out of state or out of the country. Just make sure you keep a copy for those family members in the future who will be looking at your name on the family tree and wondering about you. Genealogy is so much more than just names on a tree. Plan to be remembered!

Wishing a happy, healthy, and safe Thanksgiving holiday to all my friends and acquaintances online!