One thing that strikes me in thinking about death is that when someone dies, their way of ordering the world is gone. There is something about the things that they touched, wrote, painted and so on that we are inclined to preserve. I was looking at some cards from my Mom that were fairly insignificant, but now they mean a lot to me because that’s her writing on the paper. Her thoughts are expressed and they are now inaccessible to me going forward.
What I mean by ordering the world is the way that we keep our things. Mom placed articles and books in certain places in her house. Everything in the house was a certain way. Clothes were here, pictures there. Boxes were put in this closet, the old high chair in that one, etc. You might cut your grass and trim your hedge a certain way. These are very tedious and in some sense, minor details, but as soon as you die or are struck ill, they begin to evaporate and vanish from the world as if you had never been. This is probably one reason behind why some people keep rooms exactly as the deceased left them and refuse to alter them. Altering the room would break apart some of the last remaining traces of the dead person’s affect on the world. Taking this further, it is easy to see some of the motivations behind preserving the relics of saints in the form of pieces of clothing, bone, teeth, hair and so on. I’m certainly not agreeing with that practice, just seeing a possible origin for it.
As soon as you die, the way you kept your house and trimmed your hedge begins to fade. Someone else may be left living in it and decide to change things to the way they want it. Or it might be sold to someone entirely different and all traces of you living there will be gone. For those in nursing homes this uncaring process starts earlier. The world does not care about you or I and it will keep right on turning without us.
But traces of us (and our ancestors) linger on if our own children do things the way we did them. Perhaps they organize their things in similar ways to us, make the same recipes or like the same authors. A hundred little things pass from generation to generation, most of them unconscious and hidden in plain sight.
The urge to preserve something of who we were is a primary motivation for writers of history and seekers of glory who want to emblazon their memory onto the wax of history. Unfortunately for many of them, the vast bulk of people couldn’t care less for what happened five days ago, much less five centuries or millenia ago. Anna Comnena admirably summarizes the urge of the historian to preserve:
The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it ‘brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest’. Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.
I think this is also the motivation of the family historian, researching genealogy. It is often a lonely task and you wonder why you are doing it. But that is why: to try to preserve some slim reed of what was against the overwhelming tide of time which sweeps on ahead.
The ultimate hope for the Christian is that these small things which make up the essence of who we are will be continued in the future age. Perhaps when we are resurrected our way of doing things, perfected and renewed, will be carried on in the new heavens and new earth. When I walk into wherever my resurrected Mom “lives” – if such a concept makes sense then [and I think it will] – it will be recognizably her space as her way of doing things will be obvious to me. At least, that’s my theory.