A new view of self-remembrance
By Kate Jenkinson
Remembrance month is our time for honouring fallen heroes. Most were denied the opportunity to express their deepest and most personal wishes about how they wanted to be remembered – although this was surely a theme for private reflection in their darkest hours. But Rupert Brooke’s fictional soldier appears transcendent, pledging his patriotism in a bid for immortality, transforming the place where he’ll eventually fall into a permanent echo of home. An iconic, unforgettable act of self-remembrance.
Fast forward over one hundred years, and the irrepressible desire for symbolic immortality runs like a forcefield through our sector, charging charitable giving and fundraising, most visibly in the way that charities talk to people about gifts in Wills. This year, the Remember a Charity Week campaign urged us to ‘Be remembered for even more’; to ‘Pass on something wonderful’. On its Stories page, one case study features Tenneh from Sierra Leone, a young beneficiary of Save the Children who rows to school in a makeshift canoe fashioned from a hollowed out tree-trunk. “Where”, the legacy prospect is asked, “will your ripples end?” What’s noticeable in all this messaging is the predominance of the ‘you’.
At Legacy Voice, we’re often asked to pinpoint the difference between legacy and in-memory giving. A popular motif of gifts in Wills is that they’re the ultimate way of representing self – encapsulating in a single act the things that matter most to us; that (we’d love to think) might outlive us – bound up in our philosophy, deeds, soul. In-memory giving and fundraising, on the other hand, is first and foremost about the person we’ve lost.
Choosing a charity for in-memory gifts in itself can feel like a selfless act when driven (as it so often is) by thoughts of what that person would have wanted – mirroring how they were cared for at the end, or how they lived and loved. This makes the beneficiary important – but mainly through the lens of experiences and passions that belonged to somebody else. There’s no doubt that in-memory giving can help reorientate us after a bereavement and underpin our often helpless grappling to make sense of our grief. But the ‘me’ in this context, we tend to advise the charities we work with, has a much quieter voice.
As a sector, I wonder if we’ve taken this mantra too far? In our insistence, throughout our in-memory messaging and product development, that the loved one is King, have we lost sight of a fundamental truth about this type of giving? That it’s the people left behind who ultimately matter the most.
As part of a recent Legacy Voice research project, we spoke in depth to in-memory supporters of Marie Curie. Most had tried to initiate a conversation with their loved one before they’d died about how they’d like to be remembered – including the prospect of supporting a charity in their name.
In some cases, the person facing their end of life had been focused on thanking the actual staff who’d been directly involved in their care. For others, talking about their end of life decisions had been more difficult, particularly when the prospect of death had come upon them relatively quickly. In these cases, when the time came, their families had guessed at what they’d have wanted, leaning in on the kind of person they’d been and their interests and values in life. It was here that charities that had previously been supported by the loved one rose in significance, as did causes with other relevance to the family, often unrelated to the circumstances of their death.
What became very clear though, was that – where conversations of this kind had been possible, they’d been immensely helpful. Reduction of stress, in the moment, had been an obvious benefit. When they hadn’t happened, the struggle to do justice to someone’s memory by following their wishes could feel insurmountable.
This has been a recurring theme in our research with charities of all different types. As one in- memory supporter of Scope put it,
“First thing I needed to know was, burial or cremation? We were literally tearing his house apart looking for the Will, just so we knew whether or not we could satisfy his wishes. We spent ages looking through his house.”
Our conversations with members of Marie Curie’s staff suggested that our instinct to ‘do the right thing’ by the person who’s died stems from a deep sense of duty and resolve, and that we look to the person in this situation for direction. As one senior member of Marie Curie’s Caring Services team explained,
“What patients really want is that people understand them as a person, and that they’re heard, and that they have agency – right to the end.”
This makes the setting out of wishes – and seeing them through – very important for both parties.
“The person’s gone. You can’t do anything really to help them. But you’re helping yourself, and you’re helping their memory.”
Last year, the UK Commission on Bereavement’s ground-breaking report – Bereavement is Everyone’s Business – reflected on the connection between talking in advance about death to help prepare someone who’s facing their end of life; and the subsequent capacity of those they leave behind to cope with loss. It suggested that, when people believe their loved one has experienced a ‘good death’, this can bring significant comfort.
Conversely, when a person is felt to have suffered unnecessarily, or where doubt lingers around what they’d have really wanted – this can lead to feelings of guilt and uncertainty. Little wonder that a key legacy of Covid – during which so many families were denied such opportunities – was a sharp increase in the incidence of complex grief. As one of the Commission’s organisational respondents suggested,
“Talking about death and dying in advance – not just after death – is critical. It can help someone to process grief, even if this is as informal as conversations about funeral music choices. Difficult decisions, for example those around place of death and funerals, can be eased if conversations have been had over what dying well looks like to people.”
Online Will providers like Bequeathed and Bequest have edged into the territory of self-remembrance, offering guidance for people planning their own funerals. The company My Wishes offers downloadable forms which can be used to make preferences clear. Some charities, including Shelter and Porchlight, integrate forms of this kind into their core information for their supporters about organising a funeral collection.
But in a world where the direction of traffic in palliative care is definitively towards pre-planning and encouraging open conversations about death and dying – such initiatives feel like a very tentative drop in the ocean; just as funeral collections themselves are just one of a limitless range of (often far more inspiring) ways that we can support a charity in memory of someone special.
Asking supporters – especially service-users – how they’d like to be remembered with gifts to an important cause, donated by those close to them after they’ve died, is clearly a sensitive ground for charities, whatever their cause. It could explain the caution with which the sector appears to be approaching the self-remembrance zeitgeist.
But there’s another way of looking at this: that the reason people are motivated by acts of self-remembrance isn’t because they revel in the thought of exerting control in the afterlife. They’re drawn to them because they recognise them as a gift to the people who they know will miss them the hardest: little legacies of kindness to those who’ll be striving to do justice to their memory, to get the proceedings not just right, but perfect.
They’re driven to pass on to those they care about most the inspiration and opportunity to remember them in ways that will help create new, happy, memories – a sort of positive regeneration.
As Lesley Howells, Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Maggie’s, explains,
“When you’re going towards death … you are actually the one, in the midst of all this uncertainty, able to make something certain.”
I’m reminded of a series of research conversations we conducted a few years ago with National Trust supporters, exploring ideas for potential in-memory products. For this group, the idea of a personal, commemorative event rose to the top. They loved the idea of a celebratory day (“A Peggy day” as one called it), at a place of special significance to the person being remembered, enjoyed by every generation.
“That’s a very nice idea – to get your family together again, to think about you. It’s something I would talk to my husband about, and say ‘look, if people want to give, I’d rather they gave to this than a blanket donation’. I quite like the idea of speaking from beyond the grave and asking your family to do something like that for you!”
The prospect of being part of collective family memory, as the circle of life turned, was particularly liked.
“And the grandchildren’s children will go there. That’s how the memories are carried on, that’s how the conversations and the stories go on.”
Imagine the power of an of act self-remembrance that says simply, “I’d like everyone in my family to enjoy a picnic outdoors, every year on my birthday, to share one funny memory of me, and to make one small gift to the charity I spent my life supporting.”
Living funerals – a relatively new phenomenon, now rapidly growing in popularity – are a great example of how the needs of both audiences – those anticipating their own death, and those who will ultimately be left behind – can be fulfilled together in equal measure.
BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour recently featured Jenna Satterthwaite’ story. Jenna and her family organised a living funeral for her sister Heidi, shortly before she died with a terminal illness. A big party had always been Heidi’s idea. But although she’d certainly had a blast, the event itself had been profoundly helpful to those attending. As Jenna recalled,
“There was a surge of energy when we realised it was time to die, that we had a lot to figure out. There was some adrenalin. And you know, channelling that energy into a party really fitted well with our process, and with Heidi’s. She wanted to do it for herself, but she also wanted to do it for the rest of us.”
Heidi had actually spent a good deal of time researching and planning a Goodbye for herself with meticulous consideration for her family; understanding perfectly well that they’d have no appetite for talking to strangers, or indeed planning an event of any kind, after her death.
Living funerals have their origins in contemporary Japanese culture, where some elders feel a sense of shame for burdening their children with their old age, and shame towards their failing body. A living funeral (seizensō (生前葬) in Japanese), enables people to lift some of the burden from their loved ones and for many, removes any expectation on their family about what will happen after their death.
In the UK, we’re as likely to be drawn to living funerals by the thought of a loved one enjoying the wonderful things people have to say about them. It’s a very British irony that, under normal circumstances, such tributes are shared only when that person is no longer around to hear them. Also, the person at their end of life has it in their gift to embrace others’ drive to do this, and afford them a perfect platform. A finely balanced fulcrum, with need on both sides.
So, maybe we don’t give the right credit to Rupert Brooke’s soldier, seemingly intent on holding tight to some element of ‘me’, as unutterable circumstances unfold. Could he be focused mainly on his gift to those back home? Are we all a little less selfish than we’re conditioned to believe? And could passing forward our wishes about what happens at the end – but for the benefit of others – be the key to making peace with our own mortality?
Perhaps we could all learn from Jenna Satterthwaite, in the final words of her poem, Advice for the Dying:
With thanks to:
- Jenna Satterthwaite (Instagram, website)
- Nigel Gorvett and the team at Marie Curie
- Juliet Hinton-Smith and the team at Scope
- Lesley Howells and the team at Maggie’s
- Sophie Brown and the team at National Trust
- UK Commission on Bereavement
- BBC Radio 4