Wishing to be remembered by good deeds and character is not exclusive to those who believe in a supernatural afterlife, nor ought it be.
At the end of a particularly long-seeming recent workweek, I went straight from work to meet with some old friends at the only bar in the neighborhood we ever seem to be able to enjoy mutually. The place itself is, to our gang, the embodiment of hospitable perfection due to its fulfillment of two essential criteria: they serve alcohol, and you can usually get a table. Our conversation that night was as it usually is: polite—but not necessarily so—and harmless if not always entirely fresh. We joked idly about each of our jazz standards: our work, new albums worth downloading, and at least one or two well-timed quips at the expense of religions and the religious. I felt comfortable and familiar and found my mind wandering to my decent enough pub food and ripe local beer. I had just finished the last bite of my burger, taking turns rubbing the folded edges of a disintegrated paper napkin between the corners of my mouth and tips of my fingers when the conversation shrugged fortuitously to the topic of post-mortem wishes, and more specifically if we each had any.
Here I jumped at the opportunity to tell one of my favorite asides, which is my wish for a skilled taxidermist to stuff my dead body with whatever material it is that skilled taxidermists use to stuff dead bodies, replace my eyes with glass eyeball replicas, and to pose my body on a rocking chair in my living room in front of the television. Depending on my audience, I'll usually go on to describe various scenarios in which my wife habitually pivots my body's throne to face the wall before hosting dinner parties so as to not offend the guests or a business model based on charging admission—quarters inserted under a false tongue—from local youths to watch my body watch television. This is of course something of a joke, but as it turns out most people have wishes for their dead bodies that are equally grotesque, if not quite as unorthodox.
As a fairly unreserved atheist, I'm sure that it's no coincidence that the best of my friends all happen to also be nonbelievers. And while the issue of what to do with our bodies after death, both practically and ceremonially, is a rare topic of conversation, a rather funny thing inevitably happens when the subject arises in any group of skeptics—one person will invariably wait for their turn to share, pause ironically, and tell a joke that goes something like this: "Why should I care? After all, I'll already be dead!" It was no surprise to me that this is exactly what happened during our conversation that night, nor was the civil and ponderous laughter that immediately followed. And although the sentiment that our emotions will be entirely unaffected by the treatment of our dead bodies is obviously a plain fact, and though I'll freely admit to having told some form of this joke in the past myself, I’ve recently discovered that I find the sentiment underlying the purely physical premise rather boring, misguided, and ultimately, counterproductive to what is certainly one of the most important questions a person will ask themselves during their lifetime: "How might I be remembered?"
There is a certain unavoidable awkwardness that presents itself immediately to any conversation upon the introduction of the topic of one’s hopes for a lasting legacy. This is particularly true of any exchange had by the kinds of people who pride themselves on being humanist, rational, and determinedly free of solipsism. I feel a certain level of discomfort when admitting that some of my most seriously taken personal goals don't necessarily have timelines I expect to immediately end upon the moment of my death. I'm certain that the uncomfortable reminder that I have wishes for my own afterlife (if you'll forgive me) is the root of the sarcasm and dull humor I so often find myself injecting into these kinds of conversations. However, treating these feelings of awkwardness or discomfort as valuable, legitimate, or anything but an obstruction to finding answers to the remembrance question posed above is—speaking lightly—disadvantageous. Wishing to be remembered by good deeds and character is not exclusive to those who believe in a supernatural afterlife, nor ought it be.
And so it was with these thoughts in mind that I shook my head no when the waitress asked if I'd like another Blue Point and happily paid my bill with my credit card, a proud smile nearly emerging visible on my face while looping the esses of my signature, enacting one of the last standing great relics of the Gentlemen's Agreement. I said goodbye to my friends, momentarily worried about being the first to leave yet again, but felt comfort in remembering that it had in fact been a particularly productive and long-seeming workweek. I walked the few short blocks home to my apartment building and keyed open my tiny metal mailbox before heading up the stairs. Much to my delight, there was a beige envelope inside, hand-addressed to me, with a stamped return address: DIOCESE OF BROOKLYN.
I have to admit that after defeating the staircases and kicking the door shut with my heel I immediately tore into the envelope, excited like a child greeted finally by paper instead of mailbox wall after countless days of running home from school following a mail order purchase from the back of a comic book. Inside was a hand signed and—I must say—surprisingly friendly letter1 from the Chancellor and Vicar for Canonical Affairs, informing me that my baptismal record will soon be annotated to show that I have "renounced any affiliation with and defected from the Catholic Church." To this I smiled simply with pride, and took great care to fold the page neatly back into thirds, sliding it carefully back into its envelope.
Earlier that month while preparing for my upcoming wedding, I found myself required to fill out a short stack of forms with the purpose of updating the historical record with my new status. I had been intending to formally defect from the Catholic Church for some time, and, taking a brief moment to gauge the few pages of triplicate on my desk, decided that this was a perfect opportunity. I added one last slip to the top of the pile2 completed them all, and dropped it in the mail with the others and a couple of Netflix the next morning. I was momentarily a bit stunned when I considered how reflexive taking this action was, since public statements of position (particularly those that require formal paperwork) usually incite in me a considerable amount of internal debate. This instance was much different, however, as it seemed absolutely essential that I clear my name and that I do so before my wedding.
I hope my qualities and characteristics will live on and be remembered and recounted fondly by those who outlive me: my family, my friends, and my children if I have any. But once the last person who ever knew anything about me dies, the only remaining record of who I was, what I might have believed, and the values by which I might have lived will exist only in ink filed away in a cabinet or as a brief sequence of strings, booleans, and timestamps in a computer database. And certainly among these records will be those of the Catholic Church. There will be countless pleas of gay people, begging to be allowed to love without fear. There will be detailed accounts of more than ten thousand children who were known to be raped by its priests3. There will be Africa. And AIDS. And there will be direct quotations from the pope himself spreading lethal misinformation. Among these records will be records of records, proving that these statements were common knowledge shared among every person living in a country that allows journalism and who is old enough and mentally capable of understanding language. All of this will be available in the files concerning the span of time coinciding with my life, during which the Catholic Church's enrollment was made up of considerably more than one billion people4. Among these records, these millions and millions of pages of incrimination, will be my name. And next to my name will be a small marking that denotes to a future reader that I was fully aware of these horrors, and that I would not allow, in the only lasting record of my existence, the Catholic Church to claim me as a co-conspirator.