A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.
Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.
Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.
“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”
Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.
Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.
Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.
But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.
My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.
“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”
Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.
On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.
Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.
Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.
Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.
“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”
Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.
Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.
I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.
Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”