Growing up, my sister and I loathed Memorial Day weekend more than any of the remaining 51 weekends of the year. It almost always occurred on the tail of the last day of school. While other kids were getting together for celebratory parties, we were piling into the brown station wagon to make the three-hour schlep to my grandparents' farm in northern Missouri.
The routine was almost always the same. Our aunt, uncle and several cousins would join us around the large table for a farmer's feast of at least two meats and twelve vegetables. These selections would be followed by a half a dozen desserts with plenty of iced tea or coffee to wash it all down. And then we would pile back into the car and head to what felt like every cemetery in a twenty mile radius of the farm.
A careful routine would continue when we got to the family burial plot in each place. Grandma Great would take a bucket of fern and carefully lay sprays across the ground covering the buried body of a beloved family member. Then Grandma and Grandpa would lay carnations, roses and other flowers on top of the fern. When the burial site was sufficiently decorated, we would make our way to the next relative's gravesite.
These actions are how we remembered the dead. There were more traditions accompanying Memorial Day than there were Christmas. While we rarely appreciated what was taught to us while standing in the hot summer sun, we could not escape learning a bit more about our relatives and their lives each May.
I now rarely make it to the family farm on Memorial Day weekend. While I respect these traditions, I've come to imagine different ways of remembering the dead. Or, more importantly, I've sought to imagine more fully how I want to be remembered.
Just yesterday I saw a picture of three young children whose father died earlier this year. I've never met these children, but I saw their father's face so clearly in each child. Many people continue to live through their children, leaving their mark through facial features, large bone structures or even stubborn habits. But we have chosen not to have children of our own, making me want to plan even more passionately about what legacy I'll leave. And in the last decade of serving Mount Vernon Place, I've seen lives making a difference long after they took their last breath.
At the turn of this century, our congregation was dwindling to a few dozen incredibly faithful senior citizens who had first come to the church as government workers in the 40s, watched it grow to more than 4000 members in the 60s, and then take a nose dive into decline. But a couple of members loved their church enough to want it to continue to make a difference long after their death. They established a $1 million endowment, and without this money on which to draw during very lean times, the church would have likely closed many years ago.
Another church member worked with his three sons to establish a scholarship at a nearby seminary. He gave a large enough gift to permanently endow an internship at our church. Every three years, the seminary gets to use the scholarship as a recruitment tool, the church gets to select an extraordinary incoming student, and the student and congregation get to learn together for three years. I love telling people about Howard's gift and seeing how Howard continues to live through the impact these students make on our community. He would be so incredibly delighted!
According to LexisNexis research, approximately 55 percent of all adults in our nation do not have a will or any plans for their estate. Less than half of us have made intentional plans for how our lives can continue to live after our death. And yet, none of us get to live forever.
I learned early that one of the greatest gifts older adults can give their children is to make plans for their long term care. I now know that one of the greatest gifts we can give to institutions we love is to make plans for our generosity to be embodied long after we live.
What are the organizations or institutions that have made a difference in your life?
Where do you regularly give money each year because you believe in what they do and want to support it?
What if one person could have their dream realized every year because of your intentional planning and generosity?
What if lives could be touched and transformed through you on a regular basis, even after your death?
It's all possible with careful, thoughtful and generous estate planning.
I'm more than okay if no one ever visits my grave. But I want my light to continue to shine in powerful and profound ways. I want to be as generous in my death as I have sought to be in my life. I want to be remembered by making a difference.
What about you?