Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

Posted on 19 Jul 2020

“And when you're gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story” - Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – by Ensemble Cast, Hamilton – An American Musical

Storytelling is becoming a lost art in many families. Since the beginning of time elders have been charged with the passing on of culture, skills, and knowledge to the younger generations. Their wisdom rightly has always come from a position of esteem and the re-telling of their life events not only gives perspective to our lives - but also helps determine the legacy they themselves leave behind.

I recently officiated a funeral service for an elderly lady, who in the last years of her life began to write down her memoirs. She did this because though having lived a good life, and living well into her 80’s, she felt that if she didn’t record her memories her loved ones would lose important aspects of their family history forever. That, and she also wanted them to find comfort and some happiness in the stories of her life, particularly her early life before she emigrated to New Zealand, married and had a family. Very wisely, she knew this would not only be a historical account but would also prompt discussion and reminiscing by her family in the future.

It is true that conversations about the life of someone who has just died are never easy and that grief has different effects on different families. In my role as a funeral celebrant and caring for a family means I become privy to many aspects of the deceased person’s life story. I then memorialise their memory and the effect they had on their loved ones by the words that I write and speak at their funeral service.

So, in this instance I was amazed to be handed such an extensive record of this lady’s life. To put it plainly, this level of information and detail, across an entire lifetime, is what those in my profession would quietly refer to as ‘celebrant gold’.

And this lovely lady hadn’t only recorded the chronological and autobiographical information of her life but had also spoke of the ‘spirit’ she felt throughout the years. She reflected on the current events, the economic factors they faced, the politics, and the cultural and societal beliefs of the time. It truly was an amazing document to read, one that provided clarity, passed on anecdotes and the important lessons she learned - and really captured what was a unique time in her personal history.

Which brings me to the point of this blog - that we are losing these stories every day. It is so important to record our life stories - particularly of those who are ageing - to preserve our history. In the time I have been conducting funerals I have realised a need for loved ones to make sense of events and we can help communicate this process through the recording of our memoirs.

And another reason writing about our life is so important is because we all have a story. These memories are not only about what we remember but why we remembered it that way. Every single person who ever was has a story worth sharing that can change the lives of others just through our experiences. Writing our life story can also give us a sense of familial importance and a renewed connection with both our families and with ourselves.

There are obviously many ways to record your life story: pen and paper, audio/video recorder, or maybe even a scrapbook.  You can record your story yourself or you might even ask a loved one to write your story down as you speak. Knowing where to start may seem daunting, but once you begin revisiting old memories and talking with friends and family, looking at photos and reading old diaries of years gone by, it will surely begin to flow more easily. Take time to revisit the stories that are important to you and write with as much detail as you like. We can also reflect on the lessons we have learned and on how our perspective has changed throughout the years. Some questions to ponder; How did this life experience shape me? What was my sense of self like at the time? How did I see the world during this chapter in my life?

I believe that where possible every family should start a legacy conversation, most especially with their elders. The more they share with family members about their lives, the more we begin to appreciate the value of their information. Preserving their story brings so much wisdom for younger family members and this is now more important than ever as they often learn their values from reality shows and social media.

We need our parents and grandparents to share their history – good and bad - the life-defining moments, the memories and milestones. Their story is important and will be passed down from them, to us, to our children and their children - and remain precious knowledge of the history of our families for many years to come.

I’ll finish with another great quote by Lin-Manuel Miranda (and if you haven’t yet seen the musical Hamilton, I highly recommend it).

It is as follows:

“Legacy. What is a legacy? It is planting seeds in a garden you never get to see”.

Indeed it is.