What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda (“The World Was Wide Enough” in Hamilton: An American Musical)
The congregation I serve is riding a death wave right now – a slew of congregants are grieving the deaths of friends and family members. Participating in multiple funerals and memorial services within a three-week span has got me thinking about legacy. How do we define legacy? And how do we hold on to the legacy of those who have gone before, especially as their memory fades?
Over the past seven and a half years of serving this congregation, I have said goodbye to many saints in the faith – some full of years, some in their youth and some smack dab in the middle of their adult life. The list is long, as the congregation is large. There were certain people that I said I would remember always – for their grace, their spiritual maturity or their perseverance through difficulties. And yet, as the list of goodbyes grows, my capacity to hold all these legacies lessens. Even the memories of my grandparents, who died when I was a teenager, fade as I age.
I think of Alexander Hamilton’s legacy, which had seemingly faded into a “Got Milk” commercial fun fact until Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted Hamilton’s biography for the stage. Hamilton had incredible influence in the founding of the United States, and yet we as a nation forgot about him. Not every founding father gets a Broadway musical written about his life. How can we possibly hold on to the stories of everyone who lived before us?
I suspect holding on to the legacies of those who have died is a particular challenge for pastors. When we come alongside a family in grief, we learn about the life of their loved one. Often we are asked to capture his or her legacy in words of comfort and hope during the funeral. We are invited into the space of grief and often hold the space for the family. But then, after the memorial service while the family is facing the long grief-stricken journey ahead, we must make space within ourselves for the next death, for the next family in mourning. How do we make space for new families without forgetting old families?
Perhaps we hold on to the legacies of those who have died by considering the seeds they planted while living and looking for where those seeds are blooming. I suspect a liturgy of remembrance could help with this. I would love to hear how others have approached this issue. To always be a learner is part of the legacy I hope to leave at the hour of my death. Feel free to share your ideas in the comment section!
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.