We are who we are known as. When the keepers of our memories pass away, a portion of our own selves fades away with them.
With age, I am beginning to better understand the sadness brought on by the passing of people from our social circles. I am not even referring to the deep trauma of losing those closest to us, nor the burning outrage of a young life interrupted. It’s the mundane, steadily increasing drip-drip of funerals of our older acquaintances that is beginning to leave a mark.
Reflecting on my own feelings following a recent passing of a colleague, I realized that a large part of my identity, my sense of self, exists in the shared memories of shared experiences. I am the product of my experiences. Those who directly shared these experiences with me know me first-hand. Others may know about me, but only those who lived through my experiences with me actually know me. In a way, I am defined by those shared memories of shared experiences. I am who I am known as. And when those who know me pass away, there are fewer people left that know me as me, and therefore less of me left.
Memories are ephemeral. They fade rapidly unless actively kept alive. Through the associative nature of our minds, every contact, every interaction with another person evokes and refreshes our memories of our shared experiences with that person. We remind each other of the parts we forgot and correct the ones we misremembered. The memory persist, as long as it has many keepers. But with each departed acquaintance, there are more memories for which we are the sole remaining keepers. If we forget — when we forget, because we know it is inevitable — those memories will be gone forever. And then that portion of our selves will fade away as well.
So the sadness that weighs heavier with every memorial service is more than the growing sense of loneliness. It is the realization, even if only subconscious, that we are laying to rest not just the person, but also their memories of our shared experiences, and with them a part of ourselves. There is less of our own selves left after every funeral.
Look around, and inward, at the next funeral and see who the people are really grieving for.