There’s a poem by Swedish Nobel Laureate Pär Lagerkvist that deals with death and afterlife, in which he rather sadly states that “soon it will all be taken from me; the trees, the clouds, the ground upon which I tread. I will wander on alone, leaving not the slightest trace.”
But people do leave imprints behind, don’t they? We leave homes and children, we leave memories with friends and family. It used to be we also left our thoughts behind – well, some did – in diaries and letters, in notebooks and calendars filled with notations about important events. There were (are) photo-albums with yellowing colourprints, those stacks of postcards that we’d received through the years, and in an odd drawer descendants would find a half-finished novel, a set of old bills, or a poem written on an envelope.
For those interested in reconstructing the past, such documents are a goldmine. What better window into the mind of a long dead person than their personal correspondence, their musings about this and that, so carefully jotted down in a leather bound diary? This is how we breathe life into characters, give them likes and dislikes, opinions and concerns. We try to grasp their way of thinking, and while there are a number of subjects and issues totally alien to us, there are also delightful moments of utter surprise that they should think and reason just like we do. It would seem man (and woman) has grappled with the same existential questions through the ages, and we’re no closer to solving them today, are we?
Some day writers will write a historical novel set in the early twenty-first century. They will go all fizzy inside as they set about drawing up a plot line involving brave Jazmeen protesting for her rights on Tahrir square, a determined rebel leader in Syria and his love affair with French journalist Amèlie.
“I wonder how they reasoned about God,” this future writer might think, “and what was their opinion of the Arab spring?” Chances are this future writer will die unenlightened. Amèlie left no diary, Jazmeen never wrote a letter, and our rebel leader was far too busy defending his life to do much of either. The only writing he left behind was carved into the concrete of the prison cell in which he died.
“Hang on,” someone might say, “that Amèlie, she wrote tons – she must have, she was a journalist!” Yupp; on her computer, since then corroded into nonexistence. The words that flowed from her electronic devices and lit up the internet – well, how on earth to recover them? Jazmeen’s tweets lived for years – decades even – in some obscure part of our cyberworld before they were overwritten due to lack of memory.
In my country, this anonymous existence – i.e. lives led without leaving written evidence behind – is further compounded by modern burial practises. My father has no headstone, no plaque with his name and dates on it. His ash has been buried in a communal burial grove. A beautiful place, huge ash trees and beeches whispering in the breeze, candles burning along a man made little stream, but so anonymous, filled with the remains of people who were laid to rest without their names. Future visitors will never stand here and envision what their lives might have been like – there’s no information to spark musings along the line of “he died that young?” or “an H,S &E consultant? What do they do?” or “imagine that: four kids in six years.” That’s a bit sad, I think.
Wherever we go, we stumble onto the remains of the people that were; in buildings, in graveyards, in the names of streets, in yellowed love letters, in manor rolls, in deeds and wills. Our generation will also leave behind buildings and infrastructure, and rarely has a generation so expressed itself. The internet overflows with blogs, we e-mail, tweet, text – you name it. And yet one day all these words will have disappeared. It will be as if we never were, a mute generation that lived and loved and died – as all generations do – leaving nothing in our wake.
From my window I can see the silhouette of the Turning Torso, my city’s landmark building, straining like an elongated finger towards the sky. In a hundred years it might still stand – I hope it will, shouting to the world that we were here. And, dear family, when I die I want a headstone, a simple thing in granite that gives my names and dates, preferably engraved with a falling star. As to my thoughts and dreams, my worries and reflections, well, I’ll start keeping a notebook. Today. Or maybe tomorrow. Maybe.