4:00 AM, DEC 22, 2017 | By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The other day a friend told me that my name came up at the funeral of someone I didn’t remotely know. I told her, this friend, that I assumed that the person who brought it up was doubtless the minister, priest, or rabbi officiating at the funeral. She said it was the minister. I added that I knew exactly in what connection it came up and could tell her precisely what was said. The clergyman in charge, I knew, quoted the final paragraph from my book of 1980 called Ambition. Here is the paragraph:
We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed.
Over the years, at least a dozen people have told me that they have heard this paragraph quoted at funerals and memorials. I didn’t realize it at the time, and it was scarcely my intention, but in ending my book I had written an all-purpose funeral peroration. My paragraph may well be in a collection of useful things to quote at funerals and memorials when the clergyman in charge didn’t really know the deceased. That it has been so often used reinforces me in my own resolve not to have a memorial after my own death.
So many of the memorials I have attended have been disappointing. Frequently the clergyman in charge was winging it on the thin documentation supplied by a brief interview with the dead person’s family. “Jack loved golf and enjoyed reading biographies, chiefly of American political figures.” Not seldom, friends called upon to speak reveal they didn’t really know the dead person at all well, or else badly misperceived him. A good rule at these memorials is never to let anyone speak who volunteers to do so. He is likely to want to talk chiefly about himself. “I’ll never forget the night I won my Pulitzer Prize, Jack was the first person I called to tell the news.”
Some years ago I attended the memorial for the literary critic Erich Heller, a man of great learning and no less great skeptical wit. Of the six people who spoke at his memorial, at least three that I knew of he regarded as intellectually negligible, low academic politicians, clowns. What a shame, I remember thinking, Erich wasn’t there to hear their vacuous comments, and how devastatingly amusing he would have been about them.
Not all memorials are failures. I attended one a month or so ago for a friend who by most measures had had a botched life. He had been alcoholic and had a gambling problem, and the two combined to cause him to lose a fairly prosperous business. His last years were spent on a walker, his eyesight fading, living in a hotel and then a nursing home, out of money and out of luck. What could one say in memoriam about so sad a life? My friend’s son and daughter, both now in their 50s, spoke about their father’s love of entertaining family and friends. (My happiest memory of him is as a young man at a party where he played ragtime piano to the delight of perhaps 70 people in the room.) They spoke so affectingly that they redeemed him, made his life seem not a failure at all but a gift—to them, to his friends—and infused it with meaning beyond that of mere success and failure. Their having done so suggested, too, that in his way my friend was a good father.
As for my eschewing a memorial of my own, I can see no point in having one, especially now that Samuel Johnson and Max Beerbohm are long gone and unable to speak on my behalf. A simple party, with family and friends, food and drink, will do nicely. Maybe someone there will recall an amusing thing or two I said or a kind or generous thing I did. But if anyone should quote the last paragraph of my Ambition book, let it be known now that I want him thrown out forthwith.