Unique. Special. Personal. Custom.
These are all the adjectives being spoken today as families discuss how to conduct a funeral service. We are in an evolution of change within the funeral service profession as more and more families move from the traditional service of past generations and opt for a more celebratory and personal event, adding special touches that better represent that person’s life. But that’s just a portion of this personalization. In order to do this effectively, funeral directors finding deeper qualities that help define one’s legacy.
The word legacy is frequently used to describe the property that people leave their family when they die. But every human being also leaves behind a nonmaterial legacy -- one that's harder to define but often far more important. Geriatric expert David Solie defines a personal legacy as "the unique footprint we want to leave for our time on earth." This legacy comprises a lifetime of relationships, accomplishments, truths, and values, and it lives on in those whose lives they've touched.
When meeting with a family to help give context and meaning to one’s life, you may learn about interests, hobbies, career and family. But that’s just the surface of someone – and thus, it should go deeper when truly sharing and understanding the impact on the world around them. For example, talking about a man’s love of particular football team isn’t a legacy in-of-itself – nor is his hobby of bass fishing. However, if you see how his passion for his team translated into loyalty and commitment in all things he did; or the patience and commitment to learn the art of fishing represented who how he approached life in general; these are traits that one will remember and will always resonate. These are parts of one’s legacy. It’s that inner connection that makes the difference.
For some people, having a legacy gives meaning to life - a sense of purpose and accomplishment. When talking with a family about a loved one who passed there are several ways to help express their impact. There's much you can do to support friends and relatives as they sort through the past and assess the contributions they've made and the memories they'll leave behind. This process can be deeply healing and gratifying.
Since they can take up so much of one’s life, family and career can define a legacy. Being a devoted mother and wife is a wonderful description. But when you look deeper, it’s the passionate love, the effort to install values or principles, the effort of pass on traditions, to protect and guide…That would be her legacy.
To look upon a career and describe a man as committed to his business, look deeper and see the work ethic that is passed on to his children, the passionate drive to overcome obstacles and failures, the example of leadership and commitment to provide for his family. That would be his legacy.
Here are some real-life examples in my life where a legacy isn’t so easily found but yet, can exist.
A friend recently lost her father who grew up in the 1930’s, a product of multiple foster homes, a runaway on the streets, and eventually resident in a boy’s home. However, his legacy isn’t his childhood. It’s the story of him overcoming his past, from growing up in the tough neighborhoods of Post-Depression Jersey City to becoming a career Air Force veteran who, with a supportive wife, raised seven wonderful children and created the close-knit family that he never had.
I have a sister-in-law who described her father this way, “he just wasn’t a very nice man.” Well, I never met him, and I could not argue. But what I do know is he built a manufacturing company from the ground-up to where it is today, a multi-million dollar business that is still going strong 50 years later, and has created countless jobs and careers including his own his family who now operate it today. Is his legacy that of the antithesis of a loving and doting father or a man driven to success in his work that provided comfort for his family, paid for his children’s and grand-children’s education and always making sure they would never go without?
When I was 26, my biological mother came back into my life after 22 years. After a divorce, she lost custody of her children and disappeared. After reconnecting decades later, she spent the rest of her life carrying guilt and remorse but yet, despite her faults, she work tirelessly at staying in touch with her chidlren. Her legacy isn’t the story of losing custody of her children but how she worked so hard to never lose that relationship ever again.
Legacies aren’t easily identified but with a little effort and understanding, you can find it. I think we all want to know we made a difference and we all want a legacy - hopefully a positive one. As funeral directors, you have the ability and opportunity to help families find that legacy in their loved ones. With a little listening, understanding and learning can go so far in helping shape a legacy for a loved one who made a positive difference in the world around them.