When I was a senior in high school, my religion teacher had us watch the movie The Five People You Meet in Heaven, based off of a book by Mitch Albom, whom you might remember for his tear-jerker porn classic Tuesdays with Morrie. The plot revolved around Eddie (Jon Voight), a lonely, misanthropic old amusement park mechanic who is killed when he tries to save a little girl from being crushed to death by a malfunctioning ride. The movie’s focus is the titular five people he meets when he goes to heaven, but the scene I remember most was Eddie’s funeral. Because he had no family or friends, only his co-workers attend the funeral, and because they didn’t know him well at all, the most they can say about him was “Eddie was a smart guy, and a hard worker, and, ummm…”
What are people going to say at your funeral?
What you spend the last few months of your life doing and how you die will inexorably color how people view your legacy. Legends can and have been brought low by repeated indignities in their twilight years. Think of Elvis Presley dying while emptying his bowels, after a decade of blimping up and popping prescription drugs until he couldn’t string a single coherent sentence together. Or Harvey Matusow, the FBI anti-communist snitch who, after a brief period of fame during the McCarthy era, ended his life penniless after being jailed for perjury, converting to Mormonism and working as a clown to make ends meet. Shulamith Firestone, the feminist polemicist who shaped the movement with her 1970 book The Dialectic of Sex, literally died alone; she had so alienated her friends and family that her body wasn’t discovered until her landlord noticed the smell coming from her apartment.
But it also works the other way around: a man’s sins can be washed away if the end of his life is defined by heroism and/or accomplishment.
The cult of worship around celebrities like Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison who died young reinforces this point: you’re only as good as your final act. You won’t be remembered for being on the high school football team, unless you die before graduating. You won’t even be remembered for all those hot girls you banged when you were in your twenties. You’ll be remembered for what you did after, whether you used your talents and smarts to conquer the world or pursued a life of grinding mediocrity.
And if you choose the latter path, you might as well have never been born.
Everyone knows that idiotic cliche “Live your life like you’re going to die tomorrow.” The popular conception is that you should immediately book the red eye to Medellin, scooter your way to the nearest brothel and do lines of coke off of whores’ asses until your left ventricle explodes. What the line really means that you should determine if how you’re living your life now is how you want people to remember you when you’re dead.
Again, what are people going to say at your funeral? “Joe Schmo was a faithful husband, a caring father, a loyal employee, and, ummm…?” Or “Bill Badass built a publishing empire from the ground up, transformed himself from a pudgy teenager into a chiseled swole bro, and still had time to record a dozen groundbreaking free jazz albums in his spare time. He died peacefully at age 94 after kicking life in the balls every time it tried to give him lemons.”
Cut to a gaggle of tearful groupies weeping over his tombstone.
If you were to die in the next six months, would you be leaving behind a legacy that you can take pride in? If not, you need to start working on creating that legacy. Not next week, not tomorrow, but now. It doesn’t matter how cool you were ten, twenty years ago if you have nothing to show for it now.