Something has definitely changed. Or maybe it’s just me. Outside of a funeral or memorial service (of which I’ve attended far too many lately), when was the last time you heard about, read about or discussed the topic of Life After Death?
Wasn’t this an infatuation of humans about their temporary condition for – oh, I don’t know – forever? Maybe it’s me and the change is that I haven’t been paying attention. If this topic is much less of a curious passion of our attention than it used to be, then that is probably one of the few good things to come out of the recent decades of self-awareness and self-absorption: living the life we have now – and doing it right – rather than for the life we don’t know about.
Personally, I profess to harboring a sense of ambiguity – or perhaps a resigned agnosticism – on the subject. I don’t know a thing about it (Greek: a = not/non; gnosis = to know) and yet accept that there is probably some form of post-death existence that defies human description. Can God completely and eternally allow something – someone – He loves to be destroyed for evermore?
In a less spiritual sense, can we deny that the world is changed by the existence of each and every one of us? And once changed, the world is irreversibly changed. It can’t go back. Each of us affects the others in our life, who in turn affect and change the experience of others in their lives. Is that not a form of Eternal Life? The memories of our ancestors is carried on in our descendants … if we take the time to pass along their stories.
A few such stories surpass those of all the rest. The names and stories of some people become part of everyday life, become part of everyday thought and become part every person’s consciousness –- and thereby bring a form of not only life after death, but eternal life.
I bring you three short stories, each very different.
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1. Is it Life after Death if your name is spoken nearly daily by every English speaker hundreds of years after you die?
John Montagu was born in the early 18th century in the flats near the coast of the English Channel in northeast Kent, England. Born to the large land-owning upper classes of British society, he was well educated at the renowned schools Eton and Trinity College. He went on to distinguish himself in service to His Majesty’s government. He was a delegate to the Congress of Breda  and Ambassador to the Netherlands. Returning home, he served as First Lord of the Admiralty (in effect the civil head of the Navy). Later, he also served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and also as the Kingdom’s Postmaster General.
Though impressive, it is not for any of these achievements or services for which Montagu has become immortal – and for which his name is spoken virtually daily by every English-speaker. Montagu’s father was an Earl, and Montagu inherited his title. That flat region of northeast Kent is called Sandwich.
Montagu was the 4th Earl of Sandwich. One evening at a social engagement (some say a session of gambling) the Earl is said to have asked his orderly to bring him a slice of meat between two pieces of bread – as a matter of convenience to keep from getting grease on the cards. Although the facts of the story – in fact its very occurrence – are often contested, the Earl’s name was eternally lent to an emerging fad: The Sandwich.
2. On Christmas Day, there was born to us a wonderful gift. A gift direct from heaven. For on December 25, 1821 a tiny girl was born in a simple house on a farm in rural south central Massachusetts. From a young age she developed the knack – and the love – of caring for others in medical need. First her family, and then the people of her community.
When the Civil War first broke out, she began tending the wounded near Washington DC, especially after the Confederate rout of Union troops at Bull Run (Manassas). As the war continued its deathly spiral she was able to get medical supplies directly to the bloody front lines herself — a task that, disappointingly, no man was able to conceive and achieve.
After the war, she traveled the country, speaking about her experiences and the need for proper and better medical care. She explained that it wasn’t just wars and battles that led to the need for medical care on a massive scale. Disasters of all sorts bring this need. We could be prepared for such disasters and the human need they bring. Finally she was heard, and in 1881 the American Red Cross was founded.
Clara Barton’s name graces schools and streets and communities across the United States. In 137 years the American Red Cross has provided unmeasurable support to people in every sort of disaster, in every sort of way. From wild fires, to earthquakes, to floods – and from hurricanes to HazMat spills – the Red Cross provides medical service, housing, food, transportation and counseling to those in great need. Foresightfully, the Red Cross also helps prepare communities for disasters well before they occur.
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3. For a complete change of pace we look to Annelies Marie, born in Frankfurt, Germany. She was indeed a very precocious child. Like many intelligent, witty and maturing pubescent girls, she was quite a handful for her loving parents, who were trying to steer her through the awkward years from gangly youth to comely young lady. She acted up and acted out as she experimented with her self perception and with her outlook toward the world and her family (parents and one older sister).
To help cure her of what her parents perceived as an over-developed attention to herself, they gave her an autograph book as a gift on the occasion of her thirteenth birthday. Autograph books, considered quaint and old-fashioned today, were used at the time to collect autographs of friends, family, acquaintances and any famous people you could get to sign it. In addition, it was customary to collect their writings, quips, quotes and even poetry.
But Annelies would turn even the autograph book into an ongoing investigation of herself. No, she decided. It would not be an autograph book used to focus on others; instead it would be her diary. In it she shared everything about herself and her life: from the most mundane details of her life as a frustrated teenager, to her unabashed desire to metaphorically live forever – to create or do something so majestic and so wonderful that, even after she died, the world would not (could not) forget her.
Annalies Marie died tragically young, just before her 16th birthday. Yet, her name and her life are known the world over. And always will be. Annelies and her Jewish family left Frankfurt in 1938, due to the severe oppression imposed by the Nazi regime. They relocated in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where young Annelies wrote not in German, but in a beautiful expressive Dutch. Her father’s family took its name from the ancient tribe of Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse), a tribe that also gave name to the city of her birth: Frankfurt. The Franks. …. Yes, that Frank. Yes, that Anne Frank.
We cannot forget you. We must not.
The Earl of Sandwich. Clara Barton. Anne Frank. Like everyone else who has ever lived, they have a sort of earthly life after death.
Live large my friends. Think big. Do the right thing. Don’t spend much energy wondering what others think. Any Life After Death may give us a form of eternal life. But our physical life here is short. Very short.
Joe Girard © 2010, 2019
 Congress of Breda: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congress_of_Breda