It’s not something we want to talk about, let alone think about. Death. But, unless massive advances in science take place, it is coming to us all. I’d like you to take a moment to think about something. If the worst was to happen in the near future, what will your legacy be?
You probably haven’t thought about this, you’ve no plans of leaving just yet. But we know that anything can happen. Natural causes. Accidents. Acts of others. Death is final, it’s something that people today don’t want to consider. Things were different in the past. Death was thought about often, probably because there was so much more of it about. It was part of life and, although the end of physical life, was not the end because people had a strong belief in an afterlife. Much of the time, in the past, life was short and brutal.
In England, the same as many other places in the western world in days gone by, people had big families – because many children would not survive. Disease, war, famine. In Victorian England, just 150 years ago, manual workers had a life expectancy of twenty something, the middle classes maybe double that. Children were lucky to reach 5 years old. Further back, prior to industrialisation, the life expectancy in landowning families in Middle Ages England was just over 31 years.
Life was short – people had little time to make it count
Today, people are still childlike well into their twenties. But life was historically much shorter and children, if they survived, had to grow up fast. People did what they could to live well in the little time and leaving a legacy of some sort was a priority, after survival. In Anglo-Saxon times, fame was important. If you were in a position that allowed it, you would do something that allowed your memory to live on. This would be through stories or song, as people were illiterate for the most part. If posed with the question ‘what will your legacy be?’, somebody in the 600s might have said that the scops ‘will sing about my prowess on the battlefield and my name will live on’.
We have only got written texts to know for sure, so the vast majority of songs and poems from that time have been lost. Or maybe they still exist in some form of folk memory and other tales, like Robin Hood, whose tale has evolved as England evolved. Beowulf, one of the most famous and earliest English poems, tells of a man who wanted to ensure his legacy lived on. In modern literature, Buccmaster, the main character in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (one of my favourite books), wasn’t so concerned with his own personal legacy – but he did want to ensure that the legacy of his people lived on. And as tales of Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild tell us, fame can and will live on.
Today, we have a life expectancy in the UK (I can’t find data for England alone) of around 79 years old for men and the top end of 82 years old for women. It is, however, a mistake to think that we are all going to reach that age or indeed surpass it. If you consider that anything could happen at any time, out of the blue, what legacy would you leave behind. A family? Success in your field of choice? Fame? Or nothing at all?
We are only in charge of so much
So what will your legacy be? If this post has got the cogs turning and you’re now thinking ‘But I haven’t done anything worthy of being remembered for’, stop for a moment. You probably have. As long as we have ties and connections, we will be remembered. The real question in that case is, what will we be remembered for?
I certainly wouldn’t want to be remembered for the wrong things, though I have made mistakes and I do have regrets. We have no control over what happens when we’re gone; only of what we do now. Let a persons life be measured by their deeds. I can only hope that, to quote Shakespeare, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’m remembered for the good that I tried to do – and one of my aims in life is to do what I can to make the lives of others better, particularly those close to me – through memory of good times, love and advice, and security – monetary or otherwise.
It’s great that we live a longer life, allowing us to see our grandchildren and often. our great grandchildren – that in itself is a legacy. What keeps your fire burning? What will your legacy be? And have you considered this – If not, will you now? Or are you of the mindset of ‘once I’m gone I’m gone’? I’d be interested in hearing your point of view.