To be remembered is subjective, but to be forgotten is universal.

I began my full-time teaching career as a last-minute replacement for a professor who took another job a couple of weeks before the semester began. My primary task was to teach a graduate personal leadership course she had developed exactly the way she did (she even walked me through it). At the end of the course, every student wrote up their personal leadership action plan (PLAP), where they examined their current state (A), their ideal future state (B), and developed some goals to get from A to B. 

One of the assignments to help students figure out their ideal future state was the “eulogy exercise,” which is widely used in leadership programs. This exercise asks students how they want to be remembered at their funerals.  Thinking about their eulogies would help them hone in on the things that matter the most to them, and plan their current lives accordingly. Some students mildly protested having to think about their deaths, but gamely wrote them. I was a believer, especially after watching the tough-as-nails, Steve Jobs,’ moving memorial service. But the eulogy exercise’s life (pun intended) abruptly ended in my class, when a student took it literally and wrote “Today we are here to pay tribute to X following his untimely death while he was an MBA student.” I reluctantly moved on to the less controversial “retirement exercise” where students think about what others might say about them at their retirement party.

I remembered the eulogy exercise after recently reading Ryan O Neal’s NYT obituary. An obituary is different from a eulogy and some ways more public. O Neal’s obituary read like a list of his mistakes and misfortunes, including his troubled family life, his inability to deal with failure, his son’s drug addiction, you name it. Like some of the readers unfamiliar with his life, I pitied this man who led such a sad life despite having it all. But soon the counter-comments began popping up, people were incensed at the obit’s negativity, and fondly remembered how much O Neal was a part of their younger days. They pointed out his resilience, his troubled yet long-lasting love for Farah Fawcett (with whom he is now buried), and his other meaningful roles after Love Story. I just checked the obit again, and the comments and anger have since swelled. But the point is, obits are subjective, and eulogies even more so. Would a handpicked group of people speak ill of the dead? In that sense, a group of strangers defending O Neal’s defense is more impressive. 

But death and its related ceremonies are important ways in which we assess a person’s life.  Princess Diana’s universal appeal was evident when even India (pre-internet) came to a standstill for her funeral. I remember my whole village assembling in front of a solitary TV in 1984, to watch the late Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi’s funeral. I recently read that Lincoln’s funeral and centennial celebrations were among the most widely attended events across the US. We also attach some kind of justice to a person’s manner of death, which is why we still lament that Mozart was left in an unmarked grave and feel content that Bernie Madoff died in jail. But is thinking about how others will judge you at death helpful in living your life? 

Two of my aunts passed away on the same day last week. One was the epitome of love and warmth, was doted on by her family, and died peacefully, lovingly cared for in her last days. As I write this piece, her family is preparing for her service complete with a collage of video clips (mine included) about her life and legacy. The other aunt, a widow, had no children, was mentally ill, and under the care of relatives. She was often abusive towards her caregivers, making it difficult to care for her. Eventually, she was moved to a nursing home, where she continued to be difficult and breathed her last following an attack of pneumonia. My first thought on hearing of her death was that she was finally free. Her relatives conducted her last rites more out of a sense of duty than love. Even the fifth-day ceremony, where everyone gathers for a meal, was more of an afterthought because the relatives (who had access to her funds) didn’t want to seem heartless. There will be no memorials or eulogies for her. The general sentiment was one of pity and hope that she would have a better life in heaven than she did on earth. 

Yet was my mentally ill aunt’s life, less remarkable than my other aunt’s? I don’t think so. Her late husband advised her to never leave her home, her stronghold, and stay with others. And this she did until the very end (her nursing home stay was only for a couple of months). Whatever she went through was in “her” arena. Despite being ravaged by illness and being at the mercy of others, she always stood her ground and never cowered. Thanks to the universe’s intervention she was also financially independent because of her husband’s meager but sufficient pension. 

I realize that the eulogy exercise focusing on what others say about you at your funeral is a pointless exercise to guide you on how to lead your life. As the Hamilton song goes, you have no control over who will tell your story, which is perception anyway. History has proven time and again that many greats (like Van Gogh) are not recognized during their lifetime. Others’ fates dwindle after their death: even George Washington is under fire for being a slave owner. As Aristotle says, a good life can continue beyond your death. All you can control is your facts. If the greats are remembered subjectively, what chance do the others have of even being remembered? 

The real value of the eulogy exercise is to viscerally remind you that life is finite.  

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