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A Contemplation of Death and Memory

A Contemplation of Death and Memory

How Death Binds Us, Guides Us, but Cannot Stop Us 

By Ashley Herber  

Over break I went to the funeral of a man I barely knew. I still cried. The service reminded me of the death of my grandpa, who died almost exactly two years ago. I cried then, too. We cannot very well think about death without thinking about the deaths that touched us most.  

In this way, death brings us together. Death, the thing that separates us from our loved ones, also bonds us in our support for one another and in our common experience.  

Death is a part of being human. But death is also frightening. It’s the kind of frightening that doesn’t jump out and scare you. Instead, it creeps up into your thoughts and stays there for a while, sinking your chest, muddling your thoughts, and gripping your heart. Death feels both natural and unnatural.  

Death has many contradictions like these which make people think about death in different ways. Often, people think about death by personifying it. Emily Dickens in “Because I Could not Stop for Death” personifies death as a kindly gentleman who gives the deceased a last carriage ride. [1] Pop culture personifies death as a grim reaper clad in a black robe with a scythe in his hand to “reap” the dead. How would you characterize death; is it a man, a woman, is it gentle, ruthless, fair, persistent? The way we think about death and about our own mortality is important because it impacts how we live our lives. [2] Even in life, death has influence.  

We spend our lives awaiting death—either preparing for our own or for those of our loved ones. Of course, life is not all about death, but it does always end that way. No one wants to waste the life one has. As young college students we spend a lot of time thinking about our future, trying to figure out what we want to do with the rest of our life. Our ambitions are high, and we aim to get the most out of life because we know it is fleeting. Although we are young and strong, our mortality is fragile. 

I was reminded of the transient nature of life when I spent a week writing obituaries for the University. They were short and formulaic, and all repeated the same basic information: name, graduation year, date of birth and death, and surviving family. As I wrote I knew that what were just pieces of information to me were tremendously significant to the names I wrote down both before and after the word “surviving.”   

One day, my information, too, will be on that list preceding the word “surviving,” and my time at Walla Walla University will be represented by a simple date. And so will yours. And so will the generations that follow us.  

But we will not be forgotten. We are kept alive through the memories we share with those around us, through the stories we pass through generations, and through the works we leave behind.  

Richard Burgtorf is the name of a man I never met. He was my great grandfather. He was a doctor, but he was also a poet, and although I never knew him his memory is kept alive through my family and through his poetry. There is comfort in the knowledge that he was not forgotten—that I will not be forgotten.  

Although I have no memory of him, I hope to carry on Richard Burgtorf’s skill at and love for poetry.

The following is a poem by Richard Burgtorf on his own death. I hope that one day, years after I am gone, someone else will read my works, will hear my stories, and will keep me alive in the same way that I keep my great grandfather alive as I read and share this poem.  

Shed No Tears for Me 

Last Thoughts 1975 

Shed no tears for me 

For when I go 

I will have repaid only a small part of what I owe  

To the many, living and dead 

Who smoothed the way that now I tread. 

Shed no tears for me 

For tho’ I’ve worked hard and long 

Too often stubborn pride has blinded me  

So that I could not see—the way 

To build a better tomorrow from today. 

Shed no tears for me 

For tho’ I’ve been busy doing worthwhile things 

I too often did not sense or feel the pain 

Of those who stumbled, fell and could 

Not rise again. 

Shed no tears for me 

For many things I have left undone 

Many wrongs I did not right, 

But rather shed your tears for those who follow me 

Who see man’s struggle  

And do not join the fight 

I do not want to leave, to go away 

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But I, like you must reckon with this day 

When mortal dreams must fade away 

And all that I am and was and hoped to be 

Will belong to eternity—where time it. 

When I go shed no tears for me 

For I became most of what I hoped to be 

Some regrets, some dreams shattered 

Some unfulfilled 

But life was largely what I willed. 

Most of that for which I yearned 

I wanted neither wealth nor power 

But wished only to fill each hour 

With purpose 

So that with God’s outstretched hand  

I could lift up the sick the weak the fallen 

And help them stand.  

References  

  1. Dickinson, E. (1890). Because I could not stop for death. Poetry Foundationhttps://bit.ly/3GlZEMM  
  1. Blackie, L. E. R., & Cozzolino, P. J. (2011, May 19). How you think about death may affect how you act. Association for Psychological Sciencehttps://bit.ly/3y8IDmf  
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