Do you care about your legacy?

January 14, 2020 • 1:00 pm

There’s no doubt that many people on this planet worry about how they’ll be seen after they’re dead. Some of that leads to good acts, like endowing libraries and universities with buildings that bear your name. And some of it may be a kind of “kin selection”: perhaps your postmortem reputation will affect how people view your kids, or a spouse you’ve left behind.

But regardless of how you strive to ensure that humanity remembers you, it doesn’t do you any good when you’re gone. That’s why I’m puzzled when people strive to ensure they’re remembered. Maybe it makes them feel good in the present to think about it, but why on earth would one worry about how the world regards you when you’re dead?  Even if you think it will make your friends or others think of you, what good does that do you when you’re dead? This is the reason why I’ve never in my life worried about how I’ll be seen when I’m gone.

And of course, as Woody Allen tells us constantly, the Earth is going to burn up, and the universe will go cold. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt, all of science and all of human knowledge—all kaput. 

Here he is expounding his grim worldview. I don’t agree 100% with this, because I think the meaninglessness of life comes entirely from the fact that it’s finite, and from that realization I can find things to enjoy in the life we’re vouchsafed.

Almost all of you will disagree with what Woody says, too, but it’s interesting to hear him talk about how his nihilism informs his artistry.



151 thoughts on “Do you care about your legacy?

  1. I’m at an age where I am likely closer to my own death than my birth, so I have occasionally thought about whether or how I’d be remembered. I like to think there are a few people who may remember me as a rather good teacher and fellow, but that’s about it. That worries me not at all. We are all dust in the end.

  2. This sounds a lot like a conversation I’ve had with my wife about how we want our remains handled after we’re dead. I have a preference for being buried (I’m not sure exactly why – I guess I like the idea of having a headstone somewhere). However, I’ve also told her that so long as she assures me that I will be buried after I’m gone, she can actually do whatever she likes once I am dead – because I’ll be dead.

    Anyone else have any founded or unfounded preference for their remains?

    1. I want to be incinerated and then my powdered ashes mixed with fly food. And then I want a batch of flies to be reared on that food, so that a new generation of flies ecloses that are partly made of my ashes. If there is a memorial service, than I want each person given a stoppered vial of flies and then, at a signal, they pull the stoppers and let the Coyne flies fly free! (I’m not kidding.)

      1. This is unique. I have thought a few times as I have been taking pictures of turkey vultures about the possibility of having turkey vultures eat my dead body. I haven’t been entirely sure and am hopefully far enough out from that. I don’t think anyone would really understand and might think it’s too weird. So maybe just something traditional. I’d rather be buried so I can be found as a fossil down the road.

        1. When my husband died young over thirty years ago, I asked about a Native American style sky burial, where the body is elevated above the ground and critters eat it, Shut down absolutely on health grounds.. Western Canada in the eighties,

      2. Brilliant! As Hitch said, one meaning of life is the ability to appreciate or even engineer irony. Clever people are funny which makes this primate laugh and feel good and to appreciate the elegance of others’ hierarchical thought. One of our duties in life is to pay this forward so there is an abundance of joy in the world, however transient, to mitigate the bleakness of our inevitable extermination.

          1. The HazMat folks ruled out cremation due to the Johnnie Walker Black Label ABV% level in his corpse. Fortunately Hitch had foreseen this, Steve Wasserman, Hitchens’ literary agent reported in Dec. 2011 that:

            “In accordance with Christopher’s wishes, his body was donated to medical research. Memorial gatherings will occur next year”

            1. A noble thing to do. I will do so as well. Hitch is probably resting comfortably in a puddle of formaldehyde, awaiting an eager medical student who will begin by cutting into an arm or a foot, moving gradually up the limb over the period of a class term and on into the body cavity. Then she’ll relieve the body of it’s brain, center of personality, and inspect it for any traces of atheism or anti-authoritarianism. I can imagine if Hitch’s soul could hover nearby, adding commentary and offering the odd encouragement. 😎

    2. I have no preference, myself. My wife professes a similar indifference, until I suggest leaving my body to the medical school. The idea of my body being dissected is apparently too much for her despite her understanding the logic of being a little useful when you’re dead. So we compromise on composting, now legal in WA.

    3. We too have chosen to be incinerated – last chance for a smokin’ hot body. I see way too much prime real estate, especially farm land, being used for monuments to the dead. My survivors can do whatever they want with my ashes although I have requested a portion to be spread on a wonderful meadow along the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak – nourishment for those spectacular wild flowers.

    4. My preference, and I’ve mentioned this to family more than once, is that my remains are disposed of in the most trouble free and economical way possible and that the funeral should consist only of a big party in which everyone drinks, enjoys the chance to be with everyone else, has a great time and tells tall tales about me.

        1. GBJames, I would be honored to have you at mine and even more so to attend yours!

          But what I’d really like is for you to reveal to me how to make that possible!

              1. If you’ve got your ticket booked to Dignitas (others are available), why not hold a party to celebrate?

    5. Having studied Classical archaeology and been exposed to many a stele, I also like the idea of a headstone. I figure it’s unlikely my remains will make it into the fossil record but the headstone will last a bit longer than my bones. I have to think of something witty to put on it. One phrase I’m thinking about is, “It’ll be fine” because I say that a lot & it would be funny as a headstone message since obviously, it wasn’t.

      1. I don’t much care what happens to my body once I’m dead, although I’m tickled by the idea of being dug up by archaeologists someday. Mostly I’d just like a headstone so I can present viewers with: “Anyone found praying in the vicinity will be asked to leave.”

        (I can’t remember where I heard it, but ever since I’ve determined to use it myself.)

        1. If it is wanted I will donate my body for medical students to use as my condition makes organ donation out of the questions. Otherwise an eco-friendly disposal, I seem to think the body can be freeze dried but may have dreamed that.

          I wish I could find this article of about 30 years ago as it amused me. A lifelong fan of clay pigeon shooting asked that his ashes be put in cartridges and fired over the range. His friends obliged and his ashes were scattered with the aid of a 12-bore.

          1. I think you can donate your body ahead of time. Different schools will have different procedures/expenses. At the Medical School where I work, they have a ceremony for loved ones when they are finished using your body and what’s left of you can either be returned to relatives or interred in a crypt after cremation. I asked what happens if you have no loved ones because you outlived everyone and basically no one comes to the ceremony and you get put in the crypt. Sometimes lawyers end up getting the notification (of course they don’t come to the ceremony). I thought this was a bit sad but I’m sure it will become more common if we live longer lives and reproduce less.

            1. Thanks Diana. My local medical school would be Bristol and they offer the retention or non-retention of remains but will also cremate with no ceremony if that is the wish of the person who donates their body.

              I like the idea of no service at all. My closest friends are atheists and will be left a beer and whisky fund, real ale and single malts hopefully, if they want to remember me. That option also stops someone trying to force a religious funeral and as my sister is fairly religious and often goes through spells of extreme evangelical claptrap I would not trust her with my remains, even if I will be too dead to care or notice.

              1. My brother in law was, as far as I know an atheist, and only went to the local Unitarian Fellowship from time to time for conversation. But, when he died in an accident, his mother ensured an extreme evangelical preacher was in attendance at the funeral. It was a disgusting display of disrespect for the wishes of the deceased. His wife, my sister, was deeply upset at the shenanigans, as the preacher tried to save us all.

          2. I took a midlevel anatomy class with a cadaver lab many ago. I see how important cadavers are to learning human anatomy. However, I cannot seem to overcome the horrifying idea of people poking around my dead body or possibly cutting it into pieces.

            1. I agree it’s a bit awkward thinking of someone probing your body. But, I’ve signed the card for donation. They can rip out my heart for a transplant (if it’s any good), but then I’ll let students poke at my body, just because it’s a way of furthering the community of mankind in a small way. I do have to ignore my angst about being thoroughly inspected though. But, when the time comes, I won’t be around to feel my ears burn. 😎

              1. Often they chop you all up & put you I. Separate drawers. It’s ok though because they track all the parts so you know what body it belongs to so they can dispose of you altogether when they’re done.

            2. You learn how to suture on a cadaver too. There are also some really good sim models. Blood and everything but cadavers are still important.

          3. If it is wanted I will donate my body for medical students to use as my condition makes organ donation out of the questions.

            I used to know a person who taught at the “Drains” – the Anatomy department. We vaguely chatted about this a few times. For teaching quacks, what they want are normal bodies, not ones with interesting collections of diseases, extra heads, etc. The object of the exercise is for the trainee quack to get an intimate knowledge of the interior of a normal body.
            Sorry to disappoint you.
            If you’ve got something really interesting – worth going into the text books, or the cases in the Anatomy Department’s museum, the quack treating you will probably have raised the subject already.

            I picked up Richard Fortey’s “Dry Store Room #1” from the library yesterday. The “man with the thousand trilobite stare” meets the biggest rummage-pile in the country sounds likely to be a fun read.

            1. “Sorry to disappoint you.
              If you’ve got something really interesting – worth going into the text books, or the cases in the Anatomy Department’s museum, the quack treating you will probably have raised the subject already.”

              Thanks for the info but already checked and while my condition means donation is out the body is fine for donation.

      2. I have to think of something witty to put on it [my tombstone].

        Something along the lines of Dorothy Parker’s “Excuse my dust” or WC Fields’s “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” or Spike Milligan’s “I told you I was ill”? 🙂

        1. I used to teach at an English-language school for foreign students.

          Behind it is a small cemetery where many celebrities are interred. Sometimes I would hold classes there so that the students could practice their English by reading the inscriptions on tomebstones.

          Several are jokes. For instance, Rodney Dangerfield`s headstone contains his hame and then his populsr self-deprecatory tagline, “There goes the neighborhood.”

          I’m partial myself to “Jack Lemmon in…” directly above the grass of his plot — as in “Death is just another movie I’m starring in.”

        2. Ken, if you’re ever in Sussex, pay a visit to Winchelsea Churchyard (the church is a most peculiar shape, but that’s another story), where Spike is buried.

          The stuffy old CofE wouldn’t allow his family to put ‘I told you l was ill’ on the headstone, so it now reads ‘Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite’. Which I understand is the same thing in Gaelic.

          Here it is (I hope):

      3. I figure it’s unlikely my remains will make it into the fossil record

        Estimates vary, but it’s on the order of a million to one against it. The modern habit of burying people helps, but doing it on land which is mostly eroding is a step backwards. Venice, New Orleans, Alexandria and the like on major river deltas being an exception.
        I you really want to up the odds of getting fossilised, a burial at sea would be a good start. Nice deep water, and on the margins of a subduction zone would help.

        For your collection of notes for a stele, how about notorious hypochondriac Spike Milligan’s epithet saying (allegedly) “See – I told you I was ill!”

      4. Have a friend whose whole family is buried with headstones. She didn’t want that, but to appease the family, she pre-ordered a nice stone bench overlooking the plots.

    6. I have indicated in my will and to my family that I would prefer the least expensive option. This would include weighing my body down and dumping it in international waters, if it is legal.
      I expect this will be either donate to science, although shipping will need to paid to the mainland or cremation and dumping my ashes in a nearby wilderness park where I walked with my dogs and children.
      I also expect any all organs and tissue to be donated if they are still usable.
      I don’t want my ashes saved and put on display, I think that’s creepy.

      Paradoxically I currently have the ashes of both my previous dogs, sitting on top of my dresser three feet from my bed where I see them every day. I find this to be a comfort, for I loved them both dearly and can’t part with them, but also a reminder that I will eventually join them in oblivion and I suffer from cognitive dissonance.

      My legacy will be my children, I hope to leave them with good memories, a few keepsakes and some inheritance that will ease their journey through life and perhaps bring some of their dreams to fruition.

      When I was young I couldn’t even comprehend living to 2020. Now I’m hoping to see the results of the James Webb Space Telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope and nuclear fusion as a functioning energy source.

      1. This would include weighing my body down and dumping it in international waters, if it is legal.

        It is, but because the body can’t be retrieved, the doctors certifying death need to do a number of additional checks to be sure there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. When they (Scottish quacks) are doing this paperwork for a cremation, they call the additional fee they get paid “ash cash”.

    7. All this talk about body disposal made me recall this passage from Hunter Thompson’s piece about Richard Nixon’s funeral:

      Nixon was a navy man, and he should have been buried at sea. Many of his friends were seagoing people: Bebe Rebozo, Robert Vesco, William F. Buckley Jr., and some of them wanted a full naval burial.

      These come in at least two styles, however, and Nixon’s immediate family strongly opposed both of them. In the traditionalist style, the dead president’s body would be wrapped and sewn loosely in canvas sailcloth and dumped off the stern of a frigate at least 100 miles off the coast and at least 1,000 miles south of San Diego, so the corpse could never wash up on American soil in any recognizable form.

      The family opted for cremation until they were advised of the potentially onerous implications of a strictly private, unwitnessed burning of the body of the man who was, after all, the President of the United States. Awkward questions might be raised, dark allusions to Hitler and Rasputin. People would be filing lawsuits to get their hands on the dental charts. Long court battles would be inevitable — some with liberal cranks bitching about corpus delicti and habeas corpus and others with giant insurance companies trying not to pay off on his death benefits. Either way, an orgy of greed and duplicity was sure to follow any public hint that Nixon might have somehow faked his own death or been cryogenically transferred to fascist Chinese interests on the Central Asian Mainland.

      It would also play into the hands of those millions of self-stigmatized patriots like me who believe these things already.

      If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

    8. My wife and I have arranged and paid for burials in biodegradable coffins in a natural cemetery with low profile plaques and tree plantings to show where we lie. The plaques will be there for the benefit of the surviving spouse and family members.

  3. I don’t know why, but on this fine day, I found his viewpoint comforting in an odd sort of way…for some reason I feel much better now.

    1. We have this multigenerational ranch thing happening, which I have certainly gone on about here before.
      When I read the title of the post, I immediately thought of the trees my great grandfather planted. When tractor-driven farming happened, a bunch of land that had previously been farmed was no longer usable. He had very little to gain from planting hardwood trees in those areas, nor would he see the trees mature. But he did it.
      That is a legacy, in my opinion.

  4. Having recently lost my faith, I’m often confronted with beliefs about whether everything is meaningless, if we all die one day. Everyone and every thing is finite. The more I think about it, though, the more I think it makes everything that much more precious. If each moment with my daughters and wife is just 1 out of 1,000,000,000,000, how meaningful can each moment be? If they’re limited, though, then each is priceless.

    1. I’m sorry you lost your faith. Hopefully you are able to find meaning and/or happiness to some degree. Everyone’s life is finite, but the universe is not necessarily finite. This is more about what’s correct than offering solace. You might find it interesting though. Fun to contemplate sometimes.
      What Would an Infinite Universe Mean?
      Sean Carroll’s response to Kuhn.

      It’s 2:34 mins. I tried to find a quote to sum it up but it’s really the whole thing. It’s short.

      1. Thanks for sharing Liz. I do find that fascinating to contemplate. I like Carroll a lot. Interestingly, his debate with WLC put the final nail in the coffin of my faith!

    2. “Look at it this way; in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” – Sarah Connor’s waitress co-worker in Terminator when a kid puts ice cream in Sarah Connor’s pocket.

  5. I am not too sure that Allen is dwelling on the death thing but he seems to believe that because of death, most of living is a waste of time. That is where he goes wrong I suspect because it is the living that means everything. The fact that it only lasts so long is just reality. Every thing dies and you have to accept that it does. After you start to lose family members you learn more about this.

    Worrying about the earth or the universe going out of existence is also kind of strange but it will happen as well. All of these things happen in the same way evolution has been chugging alone for millions of years. When your time is up you just hope it is not too painful and it happens pretty quickly.

  6. I would say that instead of flushing that big toilet every century, that it is filled and flushed by every individual when born and then gone. I am amazed that some actually think that something is watching them pick up that piece of garbage. How else can one get into heaven if noone is watching? Truly amazing is how so many will actually give time and money to their church for the privilege of ‘volunteering’, and all to get into heaven because someone is ‘watching’?

  7. I’m confused by the word “meaninglessness” in the penultimate paragraph. I would have thought the opposite. That it is the finite nature of life that gives it meaning.

    1. Seems to me “meaning” is entirely dependent on perspective. Is my life meaningful to the universe? Fuck no. Is my life meaningful to my friends and family? I hope so! Is my life meaningful to me? Fuck YES!

      This really has never seemed complicated, profound or mysterious to me.

      1. That I agree with – I think Jerry is probably on the same page too, I’m just confused over wording. In any case once my life is over it won’t be meaningful to me.

        Eventually the universe will expire and nothing will be remembered. And for a photon that has been traveling, at the speed of light, through an expanding universe from its beginning to its end, no time will have passed! At least the photons won’t get bored 🙂

        1. “At least the photons won’t get bored 🙂”

          Depends on their attention span! Could asymptotically approach zero.

    2. Bunge says somewhere that when he (as a philosopher) is asked for the meaning of life, he says “Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, because life is not a construct, and only constructs can have meaning.”

  8. I would like my family to know where I made one with the earth. So it’s a simple woodland anonymous burial for me. Perhaps some daffodils.

  9. The best answer to Alan’s nihilism that I know of can be found in the opening stanzas of the ninth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. (Incidentally, I sent Woody a copy of my translation by way of acknowledging all the pleasure his work has given me and he replied very graciously with a hand-written note of thanks on a page from a yellow legal pad, which I still have in my files).

    Why—when we might have been laurel trees,
    a little darker than all the other greens,
    with tiny curves at the edge of every leaf
    (like the smiles of a wind)—why, then,
    did we have to be made human, so that
    denying our destiny, we still long for it?

    Certainly not because happiness really exists,
    that quick gain of an approaching loss.
    Not to experience wonder or to exercise the heart.
    The laurel tree could have done all that.

    But because just being here matters, because
    the things of this world, these passing things,
    seem to need us, to put themselves in our care
    somehow. Us, the most passing of all.
    Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
    And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
    it seems that this—to have once existed,
    even if only once, to have been a part
    of this earth—can never be taken back.

    [The whole of the Ninth Elegy can be found here:

    1. This reminds me of “Lie In Our Graves” by Dave Matthews Band. “Dancing Nancies” by the same group also reminds me of this. I went to “Lie In Our Graves” because of the whole post and all of the comments. One of my favorite versions is from Live at Red Rocks. 5:12 to 6:44 is one of my favorite parts of any song.
      Lie In Our Graves – Dave Matthews Band – Live At Red Rocks 8.15.95

  10. At age 78 I know I don’t have a long life stretching out before me. I don’t expect to be remembered much at all. My daughter and son-in-law will remember me, and my friends will remember me, but once they’ve moved on I’ll be forgotten. The step-great-grandchildren may or may not know of me.

    And I feel no need to be remembered. I haven’t done anything famous or memorable for people to be remembering. From Starstuff I came and to Starstuff I’ll return. Knowing that I’m one of the temporary forms Starstuff took is fine by me. That’s good enough because Starstuff is the whole cosmos.

    I hear tell that some people, particularly Christians who feel so small compared to god, feel intimidated and tiny and insignificant when comparing themselves to the cosmos.

    I, OTOH, feel stupendously huge when I think I’m a tiny bit of Starstuff.

    Now, I hear tell that the Jewish people find it disturbing to think that they will be forgotten. When we visit a Jewish grave we place a little stone on the headstone to show that we remember. My friend died last March, but there’s still no headstone on her grave. Once there’s a headstone I’ll remember her and place a little stone there.

    Her cat and I inherited each other.

  11. Without trying to analyze or rationalize why or how, I do care about my legacy. In certain ways I have failed abysmally in life but lately I’ve come to feel that my legacy will be pretty good. All I have to do is think of my kids. I’ve had a hand in creating them and they are far better than I am. That’s not a legacy I would expect anyone else to be able to appreciate unless they also know my children, but it’s a legacy that I can be quite content with.

  12. “Shakespeare, one day after he died do you think he cared about his legacy?”

    There’s the rub, I think. We plan for our non-existence by hoping that how we treat the dead will be how we get treated ourselves after our demise, as if that is some sort of insurance that we won’t be as forgotten as the guy who invented the triangular wheel.

  13. This legacy obsession we have in our culture has actually bothered me for a few years because people have asked me “what’s your legacy”. I think they really mean “what’s your purpose” & I think both questions are meaningless. I find people take the easy way out and say their kids are their legacy. Sure, but what does that say for me as I have no progeny. I once challenged a speaker a couple years back who was doing a keynote at a conference and said his kids were his legacy and he was making a big deal about legacy. I said, “I have no kids. What’s my legacy?” It really confused him. He didn’t really know how to answer & of course I looked like the freak of the world by saying something like that out loud (being a woman and all) but I really wanted an answer. I didn’t get one.

    1. I think legacy only applies to a few who by chance or great exception are remembered by many. Most of them did not know the person personally but they take the time to read about them and know what they did. A George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. We will never have anything close to that. We are just minor players in the legacy business.

      1. Yeah and now all the regular folk think they should have a legacy too. Listen chump, you got no legacy – deal with it!

        1. Several woman friends of mine and I are all childless-by-choice, figuring adoption would be the way to go if one really wanted them. Otherwise it would seem the world surely had enough already. I am happy to have that as my legacy. Especially now.

      2. Regarding Washington’s legacy, I try to remember that a slave he owned ran away, and he and Martha accused her of being “ungrateful.” I somehow feel I owe the slave that.

        1. Yes, I guess we should look down on everyone born in Virginia in the eighteenth century. We should probably not care for any who mined coal in W. Virginia as well. Regardless of what they may have achieved they are doomed by your judgement.

    2. Well, Diana, as you say, the superficial answer is to say ‘my legacy is my kids’, and those of us who are fortunate enough to have been able to transfer our genes into the next generation (and the one after that) can be proud to say as much.

      But I like to think that a more profound legacy is the permanent alterations we create in the brains of those who have ever known us, as Doug Hofstadter says in the poignant memorial to his wife in ‘I am a strange loop’. Indeed, such connections can go back for a long time: my mother’s mother died 23 years before I was born, yet her legacy, for me, is in her photos and in my late mum’s many stories of her. I have passed those stories on to my own kids, and I reckon people will still be talking about her, and thus have their brains permanently changed by their knowledge of her, 100+ years after her death.

      I wouldn’t mind such a legacy! Failing that, I’ll settle for ‘I came from starstuff, and to starstuff I will return!’, as mentioned by Laurance above.

    3. People who choose to enter the breeding population do get really confused by those who don’t share their predilection. They’re so into their drug addiction (oxytocin) that they can’t imagine living without that hit.
      Some time ago I took a close look at the UK’s census statistics. About 20% of women reach 50 (which the UK statistics office consider as the end of the childbearing years) without issue. That utterly gobsmacks the typical member of the breeding population – they can’t handle it. The next point they normally come up with is about the increasing range of assisted reproduction technologies, and they get even more disturbed when you tell them that those technologies are statistically invisible at the population level – since the introduction of the first such technologies, there has been no visible downward trend in the proportion of women exiting childbearing years without issue. The biggest drop in the proportion of no-issue women in the statistics was in the decade after WW2, when it dropped to just under 15%.
      There is no a priori reason to believe that the actuality is significantly different for men, but as the saying goes, maternity is a matter of record ; paternity is a matter of opinion. That’s another thing that normally gets the breeder’s backs up.

      Interestingly, I couldn’t see any change in the numbers since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Another myth busted by the numbers.

  14. I’ve got the family DVD’s all transferred from vhs. (Im about to do it again but to USB flash drives) One xmas after another, yes well. I amuse myself that in some far off future ummm… which could be anytime soon I suppose, some descendants will be looking at them and commenting, I think I got his nose. Or better still, wasn’t he a handsome chap.
    My dad is under a kowhia tree on the front lawn with a view of the harbour, I’d like something like that for my remains. If they can salvage some parts as I am a donor all the better.

    1. I’d be cautious about the longevity of flash drives compare to DVDs, particularly DVDs made to “archival” standards. Personally, I’m sticking with spinning rust and multiple copies for the foreseeable future, copying to new devices as storage requirements rise, and keeping the old drives as backup. It’s probably only good for 20 or 30 years, but that’s all I realistically anticipate needing.

      1. Ah yes indeed, I have thought about that but it is just a way of my off spring to transfer to their HD’s and for now they are on another medium, albeit perhaps as you say, a limited life span. I still have the VHS tapes and player.

  15. I don’t care at all what happens to my body. But I do want to leave the world a better place than it was, in some small way. This will make me feel good as I die, so is not selfless.

    1. Well put. I hope to leave the world a better place, however I doubt anything I have or will do will matter in the face of the growing tumor that is humanity. The native trees and flowers I have planted will no doubt be bulldozed into oblivion to make room for yet another fucking walmart or something equally useless. I’ve come to feel that maybe it’s better if my son does not have children, so as to end our particular collection of genes. If only my siblings felt the same…

      As for my body, my preference would be to be either sunk in the deep ocean to feed benthic lifeforms, or fed to snapping turtles or crocodiles/alligators. That’s probably illegal, but it would be the most useful way for me to stop being.

      Now, for the non-physical or genetic legacy, it really doesn’t matter. In a generation or two, (if not already) we will all be accused of being racist/sexist/homophobic or otherwise offensive and indecent by the next generation of fuckwits, so why bother trying? It appears to me that history is no longer written by the victors but erased by the nitwits too stupid or ideologically driven to learn it anyway.

  16. Do I care about my legacy? No. No one else does either. Except for my genes, should either of my sons have children, soon there will be no trace of my existence. No one will be looking for it anyway.

    1. When my younger brother, who was a heavy smoker and something of a compulsive gambler, died of lung cancer earlier this year, I suggested that we spread his ashes in the ashtrays at the casino he frequented: it would be an object lesson for other smokers and his remains would be in a place he loved.

      Somehow this didn’t go over well with the family.

      1. When a gambling buddy of mine died a few years ago, his widow and I dumped his ashes at the horse track. We got permission from the stewards to go out to the finish line between halves of the Daily Double to do so.

      2. Another true story: After my dad’s funeral, while his body was being cremated, we threw a big wake. We were all well into our cups when a couple of my dad’s oldest buddies came up to my mom and asked her what she planned to do with his ashes. Without batting an eye, she said she was gonna pour them out into the palm of her hand, take a deep breath, and say, “Well, Joe, here’s that blow job you’ve been bugging me for.”

        I thought they’d pee themselves laughing so hard. A pretty earthy bunch, my family.

  17. I am trying to convince my wife to drag my body out into the woods to give back a little to the wildlife that we have taken so much from in my lifetime. She still says she won’t though, I will keep trying as I imagine when the time comes I will not be able to drag myself out into a remote area.

  18. I’m 100% with Woody.
    Legacy happens on a short human time frame, beyond that absolutely nothing matters.. your luck of being born, your time on earth, all that you’ve accomplished, your legacies,.. nothing.
    Ps, I’m generally a very happy person, really.

  19. I asked my wife and kids to play “Bridge over Troubled Water”, hoist a glass or two , cremate me and chuck the ashes in the Bow River during the spring runoff. A bit may make it to Hudsons Bay.

  20. It’s not so much a question of being remembered but HOW one is remembered. A spouse/partner, children, grandchildren siblings, nephews, nieces and friends… maybe one or two generations subsequently… will hold certain memories but then all memories will fade away. HOW they will remember me will have a ‘touch’ of influence on their lives; I want that ‘touch’ to be healthy and loving. If I die before my wife, I want her memories of me to help her grieve. If I’ve lived and loved well and shared celebrative moments, then hopefully that will assist her grieving process and moving on with her life. We both want to be cremated.

  21. My dad’s view on burial/memorial is that he thinks it is the decent thing to do to be interred and marked for the benefit of descendants who might care about such things. One of his brothers has been very keen on genealogy, and has made a great effort to locate and record the graves and other remnants of our ancestors.

    I personally am not particularly concerned about my own memorial. I have a 16 foot granite obelisk, which I had made for a garden ornament. I have thought of perhaps carving something witty on that and asking that it be used to mark my passing.

    1. See if you can find a similar piece of the granite to practice inscribing on. Not so much for the practice as for getting a realistic idea of how long your diatribe will take to carve. As I said upthread, “don’t start what you can’t fin…”

      (It also takes a fair bit of pre-planning to get the spacing of characters right.)

      1. My wife’s family ranch is near a granite quarry/stone works, and I have scrounged there for years. I had them make the obelisk for me, but I have a lot of other odd pieces.
        I figured I would try a rubber or steel template and use a sand blaster.
        I would love to actually have the skill to do traditional lettering on stone.
        That is one of the big downsides to mortality as far as I am concerned. A person just does not have enough time to learn all the skills.

        1. No, he’d have to add a preamble (or postamble) so that readers don’t confuse him with DLT (a.k.a. “the Hairy Cornflake”).

  22. I’m very happy I’ve published. Don’t care if my name is ever known widely, I’m satisfied that I added to the sum total of human knowledge (…at least until someone else measures the same thing more accurately…). So in terms of “legacy”, yes I get some personal value out of knowing I have one…but no, it’s not really connected to splashing ‘eric’ across anything.

    I also think of legacy as leaving my kid a better, healthier, more prosperous life than I had. I’m not sure I fully succeeded simply because of sociological changes, but I’m satisfied with my try.

  23. My husband was cremated and is waiting in a nice, book-sized wooden container in my bedroom bookcase. It pleases me for him to be there among the books we both loved. He awaits cremation of my physical remains when my time comes to join his. We’ve asked the kids to combine our ashes and to distribute them in a California forest setting that was a favorite camping/fishing spot of his, mine and our childrens’ for many years. Lots of good memories there for all of us.

    Now that more options are available for disposal of my body after death, such as composting, etc., I’ve begun to think about changing my directive.

    1. When my nana died, my mom and I, me my aunt, who travelled from California, in NZ to take care of her affairs. My nana died while visiting my aunt so my aunt brought her ashes back with her. I think she carried her in the overhead on the plane which is now a big deal as human remains aren’t allowed to be transported without a bunch of paperwork. Since this was the 90s however, my aunt probably didn’t tell them what she was carrying in the box that sat in a pretty velvet satchel.

      When we got to my nana’s house we were arranging for a garage sale but some rude and snooty people came around before the official time and wanted to get a look at the things we were selling. Good grief, I found the incredibly rude as they even did that while we were getting ready for the funeral. In this case, the snooty woman nosed around things in my nana’s house that we were putting price tags on & spotted the pretty velvet satchel. I heard her ask, “how much is this?” and I had to bolt out of the house because I was laughing so hard that the woman was about to get her embarrassing comeuppance. I just about died when I heard my aunt say, “actually, that’s my mother’s ashes”. The snooty woman was mortified, left the house & we never saw her again.

  24. As an astronomer, I take the long view, and I’m talking about billions of years.

    Whichever way my body is disposed of, its component atoms are going to remain part of the Earth in one form or another.

    In about five billion years time, the Sun will run out of hydrogen fuel at its core. At that point, it will expand into a red giant star and engulf the Earth, so I will eventually become part of the Sun’s outer atmosphere. Soon after that (in astronomical terms, at least), the Sun will begin to shed layers of its outer atmosphere, so my atoms will become part of an expanding cloud of gas and dust in interstellar space.

    With a bit of luck, that cloud of gas and dust may be incorporated into a new star and its planetary system, giving my atoms a second chance to be part of the cycle of life.

    If this scenario sounds fanciful, I’ll just remind you that most of the atoms in your body and mine were forged in the heart of a star that lived and died billions of years ago. As Carl Sagan said, we’re all star-stuff.

    1. Do we have an estimate of how much of the hydrogen has never been through a star in 14 billion years? Or to put it another way – what portion of the hydrogen [9.5% of our bodies by mass] & the tiny amount of lithium originated from the Big Bang?

      1. “Do we have an estimate of how much of the hydrogen has never been through a star in 14 billion years?”

        This is an active area of research, although astronomers tend to turn the question around and ask: How long will it take for the primordial (i.e. Big Bang) hydrogen supply of the universe to be used up in star formation?

        The answer has to be approximate due to lack of good data, but the current best answer is “on the order of the current age of the universe”. Put another way, most of the primordial hydrogen has already been used up to make stars.

        However, stars don’t tend to use their entire supply of hydrogen before dying, so some of that hydrogen gets fed back into interstellar space when stars die.

        As to your second question, most of the hydrogen atoms in your body are likely primordial, although they may already have been through a star or two.

    2. There’s a fair bit of caveating about whether the sun will be large enough to intersect the Earth’s orbit in it’s red giant phase. Also, the removal of the (approximately) point masses of Mercury and Venus and their redistribution through the Sun may lead to changes in the Earth’s orbit. Whether or not that would move the Earth inwards or outwards is unclear.
      All of which is rather moot – the steady increase in the Sun’s luminosity (because of the accumulation of helium in the Sun’s core raising the mean atomic mass of the core and increasing the rate of fusion) will continue at around 5% per gigayear. That will raise temperatures on all the planets of the Solar system, and in somewhere between one and two billion years the Earth will enter a phase of runaway greenhouse effect, the oceans will boil off, the hydrogen will photodissociate at the top of the atmosphere and dissipate and it will be game over for life.
      Unless we move it somewhere else in the meantime.
      That change in solar luminosity has geological implications – the “faint young Sun” problem puzzles over why there is not more evidence of widespread glaciation in the Archean.

      1. “There’s a fair bit of caveating about whether the sun will be large enough to intersect the Earth’s orbit in it’s red giant phase.”

        Even if the Sun doesn’t expand to engulf the Earth directly, there’s convincing evidence (Schroder, K-P, Connon Smith, R; Monthly Notices of the RAS, 386, 155 (2008)) that tidal drag on the Earth by the inflated outer atmosphere of the Sun will steal orbital angular momentum from the Earth, causing it to spiral into the Sun. One way or the other, the Earth will end up as a cloud of vaporised iron and sundry other elements in the outer atmosphere of the Sun.

        But as you say, life on Earth is doomed on a shorter timescale due to the increasing luminosity of the Sun.

      2. The “Faint Young Sun” problem came up tangentially in a SETI institute lecture I bumped into a couple of days ago – – which discusses a range of issues in the Earth’s early atmosphere. Obvious relevance to the origin of life.

        Watch out for that SETI channel – it is an absolute time sink. Hundreds of hour-long (lunchtime) lectures and Q+As on a range of astronomical, biological and computational issues, by people at the bleeding edge of research.

  25. I’m a little surprised Professor Coyne wouldn’t want this website saved for posterity. Archived, somehow. Dawkins wrote about how he took comfort that his books will survive him.

    I would think centuries from now, this website would be an interesting time capsule for future historians. It will age better then most internet content, I bet.

    Personally, I don’t worry about my legacy. Live in the day is my motto.

    1. Digital media are notoriously prone to deterioration and to redundancy due to the rapid advance of technology. Just ask NASA about the tapes from its early space missions, which have fallen apart, and the tapes from more recent missions which can’t be read because nobody has half-inch tape drives any more.

      If PCC(E) wants to preserve his web site for future historians, I’d recommend etching the pages into clay tablets and baking them, like the ancient Babylonians did. We can still reads their cuneiform records from almost 4,000 years ago.

      1. Some of the languages recorded in cuneiform scripts are still not understood. It has taken a long time and a lot of effort to get to the incomplete understanding that we have of them.

        1. Records of solar eclipses on clay tablets from ancient Babylon have been used by modern astronomers in their research into the changing rotation rate of the Earth.

          1. Yep. Particularly, the fact that the eclipse trace covered certain cities, but not others. That is pretty easy to relate to the time the Earth has had to rotate to put *that* city under *that* shadow. With there being about a million days between then and now, and the Earth’s surface moving at some hundreds of miles an hour compared to the shadow cone, you’ve got the tools to reach an adjustment down in the fractions of a microsecond of day length change per day elapsed.

    2. I also vaguely remember that our dear professor was not going to have his cowboy boots saved for posterity. That somehow makes me sad, as they’re works of art, many of them.

  26. I find death and eternal life both terrifying and awful in similar ways. But with a life that ends in death there is at least the possibility of drawing some meaning from it. With eternal life there is no such possibility – how can you draw meaning from a life that never ends?

    The meaning of someone’s life is how we define its overall ‘shape’: did they lead a kind life? Maybe it was focused on exploring new ideas, maybe it was a life that put family before everything. Maybe it was a life that prized religious piousness. These are all different meanings people ascribe to their lives.

    But how can you do any of that when there is still an infinite amount of your life left to live? There can’t be any kind of coherent summary of a person’s life if that life never ends.
    It’d be like trying to sum up a film halfway through…or rather, after an infinitely small amount of the film’s run-time has elapsed.

  27. It matters to me as a parent and how my legacy might reflect on or impact my children. However, I can understand why some people with or without children might not care.

  28. Very late, but lightening the heavy load here is a brief excerpt from Le Blog de Jean-Paul Sartre online in a very old New Yorker:

    This morning over breakfast S. asked me why I looked so glum.
    “Because” I said, “everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident.”
    “Jesus,” S. said. “Aren’t you ever off the clock?”

    1. Even better:

      Monday, 3 August, 1959: 11:10 A.M.
      I was awakened this morning by the sound of an insistent knocking at my door. It was a man in a brown suit. He seemed to be in a hurry, as if Death itself were pursuing him.
      “One always dies too soon—or too late,” I told him. “And yet one’s whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are—your life, and nothing else.”
      “Okay,” he said. “But I’m just the UPS guy.”
      “Oh,” I said. “I— Oh.”
      “Sign here,” he said.
      “I thought you were a harbinger of Death,” I told him.
      “I get that a lot,” he said, peering down at the place on the clipboard where I had signed. “Spell your last name?”
      “S-A-R-T-R-E,” I said.
      “Have a nice day,” he said.
      A nice day. How utterly banal.

      Read more:

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