How Will I Be Remembered? Messages and Metamessages

"My life is my message."

I’m in the de-clutter mode, discarding accumulated stuff to spare my survivors someday sorting through it. The poet Keith Douglas had it right: “Simplify me when I am dead.” Sending outdated professional files to the shredder has been easy, satisfying, even liberating.

Not so easy is deciding what to do with a box of documents, letters, photographs and mementos left behind without instructions by my childless aunt and uncle now long dead. I know they accumulated and discarded tons of stuff during their lifetimes. But what of this kept stuff?  Are there metamessages in that box? (A metamessage is an underlying meaning or subtext – a message about a message.) Are there metamessages lurking in their kept stuff I’ve already decided to pitch? Overlooked clues to how they wanted to be remembered?

Before any discussion of tax, treasure or progeny, a creative lawyer friend of mine asks estate planning clients to write out answers to these three questions:
  1. “Whom do I want to get what from me?”
  2. “What will they do with what I leave them?”
  3. “What do I want to do, experience or accomplish before I die?”-i.e. your "bucket list"?

These questions focus on practical outcomes: how estate planning will actually play out in the lives of the clients and their beneficiaries?

I would add another:

4.   “How do you want to be remembered?”

Gandhi said his life was his message. With aging comes growing concern about how our lives will be remembered – which messages (and metamessages) will survive us. We want our survivors to remember who we were and that we cared for them, to recall something of our accomplishments and recognitions, to understand what we valued, what had meaning to us, to retain and honor some of our accumulated wisdom. (And we further hope they will forget some other things.)

Thomas Jefferson directed that three of his major accomplishments be carved on his tombstone: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Declaration of Independence, and his founding the University of Virginia. Was there a metamessage in not also listing his presidency or the Louisiana Purchase?

Winston Churchill personally designed his elaborate state funeral to include a nineteen-gun salute, a flyover by sixteen military jets and the largest gathering of statesmen in the history of the world prior to the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. What space for metamessages amid such pomp and circumstance?

I knew of a public schoolteacher who set aside life savings to provide financial aid to promising students whose high school grades didn’t qualify them for college scholarships. I’m sure those students were grateful for the money. I hope her metamessage also got through: she believed in what they could become.

University President R. Gerald Turner prefers named gifts to Southern Methodist University in preference to anonymous donations. To him, a named building or named endowment carries an important metamessage: the donor’s personal and public endorsement of the University’s programs and purposes.

In that box of kept stuff is preliminary correspondence that led to creation of an endowed academic chair at Southern Methodist University funded by and named for my aunt and uncle.

They will be gratefully remembered for a long time.

Gerald Le Van
Chair – Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White & Max
March 2011

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