The list goes on…
With each tragic passing, social media was awash with the collective mourning of a nation, starting with increasingly familiar outbursts of despair and sadness at the news.
“Enough is enough”
“No more please”
“Can everyone please stop dying?”
Beyond the initial waves of grief and outpouring of loss followed increasing volumes of online tributes, memes and memories, shared together in open forums that crossed all boundaries of age, geography, language and class. Vigils were held; hundreds lit candles and sang Bowie hits through the night in Brixton; thousands gathered in Trafalgar Square and around the country to mark what would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday, under the hashtag #moreincommon from her maiden speech to the House of Commons.
This relatively new phenomenon of public grief is the world in which we now live, which arguably began with the mountains of floral tributes left by the public in the days after Princess Diana’s death, transferring to online tributes in the last five years thanks to social media and an increasingly digital and connected world.
These online tributes, such as the huge outpouring of grief from ‘cyber-mourners’ following the suicide of Robin Williams in 2014, are hugely cathartic for those left behind, whether we knew the deceased personally or not. They create a rich digital tapestry that represents the legacy that each of these people have given us, challenge us to think about the impact they had on our own lives and, for many, leave us thinking of the legacy that we’ll each leave when our time comes.
A legacy personal to each of us
Yes, Victoria Wood was a trailblazer; the most remarkable female comedian who paved the way for many more to follow in her footsteps. She was a gifted musician, scriptwriter, actor and much more. Yes, she glamorised, satirised and poked fun at the regular mundane lives of normal, everyday people, and we loved her for it.
But she was also the first comedian I was allowed to stay up late to watch; she was naughty, irreverent and gave me lines to repeat in the playground, at Sunday school, or around the dinner table (“Can you see it? Is it on the trolley?”). There was a personal connection.
Alan Rickman was the same – my first villain. The Sheriff of Nottingham was the first cinematic bad guy of note that I can remember, threatening to cut people’s hearts out with a spoon, and yet in the most endearing and personable of ways. His talent was sublime, etched into our consciousness for portraying some of the most loathed and despised of characters in the most human of ways, teaching us a thing or two about ourselves in the process.
At the final wrap of Harry Potter, in which Rickman played the central role of Severus Snape, he wrote a short note of thanks to the cast and crew, concluding with a line of tribute to the creator of Harry Potter, Jo Rowling. It reads: “It is an ancient need to be told stories. But the story needs a great storyteller.”
No coincidence, then, that the legacy that most of those we’ve mourned together leave is their ability to tell a story in our lives, to be the soundtrack of our lives, or for their actions to change and write new chapters in our lives.
Legacies that endure
In the midst of this seemingly unending spate of deaths, I’ve sometimes found myself wondering whether we are sometimes too quick to assign legendary status to the deceased, simply because the nature of their passing was so unexpected or tragic.
Do we do it in our own families? Remembering the best, smoothing over the cracks? Does it even matter if the person is no longer with us?
Bowie left a back catalogue of 25 albums, including his poignant Black Star, a swansong released just two days before his death. Rickman, a legacy of some of the finest character acting ever to grace the screen or stage. Wood, classic sketches, one-liners, musicals, dramas; all form part of an enduring legacy for generations to enjoy.
Beyond the public eye, each left other legacies among family and friends that we are likely never to hear about. The same legacies that each of us will leave; our own small personal triumphs in life, the obstacles we overcame, the little differences we made, the lessons we taught others and what we leave behind.
The last taboo
As much as we’re good at mourning celebrities and other public figures that pass away, as a nation we’re still pretty hopeless at talking about death. According to a recent survey carried out by the Dying Matters Coalition, almost three-quarters (72%) of the public believe that people in Britain are uncomfortable discussing dying, death and bereavement. And that’s despite the same poll revealing that a third of British adults (32%) think about dying and death at least once a week.
If we’re to learn anything from the deaths of so many icons and heroes this year, it’s surely that we need to start getting over some of these self-constructed social and emotional barriers and start thinking about what type of legacy we can and should be leaving.
Leaving the best legacy
So how can we make sure we leave the best legacy we can? Here are a few pointers to help get you started.
1. Get your house in order
Seriously, get all that fiddly boring stuff dealt with right upfront. Have you made a will? Are your finances in good order? Have you written all those passwords and login details down in some place safe that loved ones can find?
The artist Prince died and reportedly left a bank vault crammed full of over 2,000 unreleased songs, hundreds of live recordings and countless music videos and films, with some fans speculating there was enough new material available to “put out an album a year for the next century”.
A nice thought if you’re a fan of the Purple One, if it wasn’t for the fact that Prince also left no will, leaving family members with years of long and difficult legal battles to secure his estate.
Also, spare a thought for Michael Jackson’s three children who, following his death in 2009, each stand to inherit a proportion of their father’s estate on their 30th birthdays, along with an estimated tax bill of over £555m.
The start of the old Jewish proverb goes: “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children …” (Proverbs 13:22, NIV). A good legacy starts with the basics, and it is perfectly acceptable to plan for future generations as you get your affairs in order.
And getting things shipshape needn’t be too challenging. There is plenty of good advice online to help and there’s nothing a quick trip to a financial adviser or solicitor can’t put straight. Do you really want others worrying about the fiddly stuff when you’re not here to take the blame?
2. Make a statement with your will
The shortest valid will in the world is attributed to Karl Tausch of Germany, who simply stated “All to wife” in January of 1967. While I’m sure his wife appreciated the sentiment, on that occasion she might have appreciated a few extra words.
Truth is, preparing a will gives us each the opportunity to make final and lasting statements to those we care about, while also reflecting the values that we wish to be remembered by, including for many, generosity.
As well as leaving gifts of money or other property to family and friends, leaving charitable gifts to organisations that mean something to us is another great way to demonstrate our priorities in life and death.
According to research from Christian Legacy, a group of Christian charities working together to encourage Christians to leave lasting legacies, more and more of us are leaving gifts to charities in our wills each year.
Charitable gifts left in wills are incredibly important to UK charities too. Remember a Charity explain that: “Two out of three guide dogs and six out of ten life boat launches are paid for by gifts in Wills, as is over a third of Cancer Research UK’s life-saving work. Gifts in Wills are the equivalent of 19 Comic Reliefs appeals each year.”
A great place to start, whether you’re writing a will for the first time, or updating one you’ve already had written, is the free ‘Guide to leaving a Legacy’ available to download from Christian Legacy’s website at www.christianlegacy.org.uk.
3 How do you want to be remembered?
In 1862, Henry Budd left £200,000 in trust for his two sons on the condition that neither grow a moustache. I’m fairly certain when Henry lay awake at night two centuries ago, his mind wasn’t preoccupied with the hope that in the future he would be immortalised online for his peculiar distaste for facial hair.
Start changing things now.
When it comes to legacies there really is no better time than the present. Take some time to do a bit of honest introspection – how will people actually remember you? What will they remember you for? What do you wish they’d rather forget?
If you have a faith, what lessons of belief or values do you want to leave behind to children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, godchildren and friends alike?
Take time to talk to family and friends about how you’d like to be remembered and what you’d hope to be remembered for.
Better still, just take time to spend with family and friends (it is no coincidence that almost all of the announcements and obituaries of those mentioned in these pages somewhere include the line ‘surrounded by family and friends’).
Also, remember to write things down. Record your memories, in words or in images, even in video. Dig out old photos and videos and annotate them with memories, or even just names of other older relatives. You could be the only surviving link from one generation to the next, so do what you can to pass on your family’s legacy.
Legacies are ours for the making
John Wesley was an 18th century Anglican minister and theologian who, after a personal experience of God during which he described his “heart strangely warmed”, went on to found a new style of church that came to be known as Methodism.
Wesley’s own legacy is quite remarkable; founding a church denomination which still endures to this day, which led the way in tackling many of the social issues of the day, including the abolition of slavery and extensive prison reforms.
By the time he died, Wesley had been described as “the best loved man in England”.
His words are just as provocative today, when thinking about how best to live, and die, in the surest and best way possible:
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
To find out more about how leaving a gift to a church or Christian charity in your will can benefit future generations, visit www.christianlegacy.org.uk.