There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. Ecclesiastes 1, verse 11.
Even I will admit, this first chapter of Ecclesiastes could be a real downer if we didn’t know that it was written to highlight our need for God’s grace and His gift in giving it. That grace-part is coming soon, I promise. For now, in this last verse of the chapter, there’s one last hint of negativity to put an icing on the cake. Without God, we are meaningless, hopeless, without purpose. We live and we die and that’s as good as it gets. What’s more, we won’t be remembered.
And isn’t that one of the most fundamental yearnings we have: to be remembered? I did some research and found that, as of 2012, it appears that nobody knows how many cemeteries there are in the US. Some estimates say as few as 109,000 while another estimate I found put the number at half a million. Think about it: if each one of those cemeteries was only 10 acres (a small plot for a cemetery), then even using the low estimate, there would be over 1 million acres of just cemetery space in America. If we placed them all side by side that’s larger than the state of Rhode Island and it would be full of dead people.
Why cemeteries? Because it’s not just there that we bury our dead: it’s where we build monuments to remember them. If we decided to bury our dead only in that Rhode Island-sized plot, think of how many millions of stone markers there would be, each one of them being a remembrance of someone we lost. Without those stone markers, it would simply look like vacant land. Before long, you’d have people clamoring to use that land somehow, perhaps to ‘drill baby drill’ or “Occupy cemetery.” It would be as if the dead had never even lived, proving the verse undoubtedly true. Clearly, the monuments would be needed and serve a purpose beyond simply marking a plot.
…And yet that is not our way. It’s not our way because the verse is sadly true. Of the nearly seven billion people on this planet at this very moment, most will die one day without some kind of monument being erected to them. That’s simply a sad truth. What’s even harsher to know is that most will die and, within a few years, be forgotten outside a small circle of people; within a hundred years, they will probably be forgotten altogether. It’s not that people are malicious, coldly blocking out anything that doesn’t focus on themselves. Yes, there are people like that, but I don’t believe most of us are. We’re simply focused on other things. I think it’s simply that it’s life and it is what it is.
You know: meaningless.
Face it: what was correct for Solomon 3000 years ago is still correct today. Billions of people have lived since that time, and an exponential majority of them are now unnamed and largely forgotten. Residents of unnamed small villages, tenements in the cities, soldiers in long forgotten armies, long fallen empires: all unnamed faces who are forgotten. My wife and I once went saw the Douaumont Ossuary in France. It holds the bones of over 130,000 unidentified soldiers who died in the battle of Verdun in 1915. Once deadly enemies, their mortal remains now rest permanently intermingled in a cold stone building: unidentified, even though they all died in uniform, as numbered soldiers in the Allied and Triple Alliance armies. Were their remains not assembled as a striking memorial of what human genocide really looks like they would be unremembered bodies lying unmarked in a field, largely forgotten less than 100 years after the struggle that cut short their lives. Even as they are now, the men are unidentified and always will be.
At least to men. To men, they are simply a pile of bones. To God, they were dear children who died horrible deaths. To some men and women, we matter while we are here, and for awhile our presence is missed when we pass away; for some, there’s no getting over that. Time doesn’t heal all wounds: it erases them. To our loved ones, our friends, and those who knew us, we live and we die and with enough time and without memorials, we are a vanished memory. The ancient kings of Egypt built ornate tombs for themselves, monuments to their own vanity in the vain hope that they would be remembered and, if it were possible, resurrected to enjoy their wealth again. Now that wealth is largely museum pieces.
Not to God. To God, both the lavish pharaoh and the unknown pauper mattered. To Him, they were personal, they were children, they were real. We may not remember them, but God did and does. He does because He is. To the immense God of all the universe, every one of the billions of us who’ve ever lived is a real person with real hopes, love, problems, tears and joy. He knew them when we didn’t; He knows them now, wherever they are, when we don’t.
I like to write these words because they’re a way to reach out and help using a talent given to me by God. I like to think they’re an inspired view of what I understand when I read bits and pieces of something supernatural left for us from the Divine. If I didn’t know Ecclesiastes (and all of Scripture) was Divinely transmuted I would simply think it was a collection of good maxims and I might still comment anyway; after all, I’m no different from anyone else. But I’ll admit that I write them for another reason as well. I’d like to leave a monument by which I might be remembered. Without God, these words are a paltry monument; simple ramblings from an even simpler intellect. Perhaps the better way is to realize that the real monument we leave is how we share God, how we share real love with others, especially those closest to us. Books come and go, but that love, well, it lasts forever because He still is. It isn’t up to me whether or not I’ll be remembered once I’m gone, but it is up to me to live life now to the fullest with God guiding my way. Doing that, then a memorial becomes a moot point.