How to Live Forever

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 2/21/18 2:30am


Definitions are inherently limiting. How can you define something that is by its nature so expansive? No combination of words could possibly make room for pigments swirled on parchment, clay structured by careful hands, aerated paint cutting across the underbelly of a bridge, air sculpted by the interior of a room, symbiotic words lovingly strung together like beads on a bracelet, the crescendo of a narrative and sound waves that vibrate your heart. All of these things are united not only by an undefinable definition but also by a quality of permanence. Their creator has peeled back the casing of her soul and pressed its precious face against the psyche of the world, leaving a trace for all those who care to see.


An item imbued with the life of a friend who has moved on or a loved one who is long gone. A memory that can be touched.


With enough money, you could become a library or a department building. Students could agree to meet in [YOUR LAST NAME HERE] for group projects. Your name could invoke memories of eyes half-closed with exhaustion, of stress-induced headaches, of fingers on keyboards fueled by much caffeine and little sleep. Alternatively, for less money, you could become a park bench.

Day of the Dead

I am a fiend for Pixar movies, and you best believe that I saw “Coco” in theaters. On its surface, it’s a movie about a boy who loves music and who must travel to the Land of the Dead to secure the blessing of his ancestors. But, like any good children’s movie, it’s about far more than just that. Central to the thematic core of the film is an Aztec and Mayan tradition which holds that every human dies three deaths: the first when the life leaves their body, the second when they enter the ground and the third when they are forgotten. In one of the opening scenes, we see a famous musician singing a song entitled “Remember Me.” Halfway through the song, a prop drops from the sky and Miguel dies (I thought this was supremely ironic and laughed, the rest of the theater thought I was a sociopath). Later on, we learn that the song was intended as a touching exchange between a never-around father and his young daughter. Implicit in the resolution of the film is the assertion that being remembered by one’s family is far more important than being remembered on a superficial level by large, adoring crowds. Remember me, begs the film, because if you don’t, I am nothing.


Words so hard to write, I don’t know how to write about them.


When you die, your loved ones may request that Facebook either delete or memorialize your account. According to Facebook, memorialized accounts are characterized by the following: the word “Remembering” is placed next to the name of the deceased; photos may be shared by others to the deceased’s timeline; the account is locked to log-ins and to changes; and all account content remains accessible indefinitely. A digital gravestone.


Thomas Jefferson had strict instructions for the masons responsible for constructing his gravestone. The engraving would read “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.” These, he believed, were his finest accomplishments. The stone would be sturdy, yet coarse and unattractive. This would deter thieves. His legacy would be carefully worded, and it would last forever.

Henrietta Lacks

She was an African American woman with cervical cancer in the 1950s. Her cancer cells were sampled, stored and cloned without her knowledge, and to this date, they have been used in over 10,000 patented medical research initiatives. Her story, which lives on through an award-winning BBC documentary and through a book entitled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” has raised important questions about ethics in medical research.


How tragic that Thomas Edison is the man who invented the lightbulb, not the man who proposed to his wife using morse code. How unfortunate that Abraham Lincoln is a long face and a tall hat and the glue of a country, not a father or a lover or a man who withstood chronic depression. In being remembered, they are forgotten.


A collection of articles linked to a name. A human-interest story, corrupted to make a broader point.


“R.I.P. Joe, 1983 – 2015, Gone but Never Forgotten” reads the bumper sticker on the back of the car in front of me.


Imagine yourself as the portrait artist for an autocrat. Who wants to be remembered as ugly? Who wants to estimate their subject’s standards of ugly? Who wants to search for the gossamer thread that equilibrates the recognizable and the acceptable? Who wants to choose between honest work and certain punishment?


The girl dancing by herself in a public bathroom, lost in release until she saw my reflection in the mirror; the man who, arms and legs scissoring, dashed through oncoming traffic; the woman, impeccably dressed, sprinting through the Atlanta airport; people whose names I do not know and whose faces are forever preserved in fleeting memories coded in my conscious. Thousands of strangers will remember them from a distance. A handful will remember them as co-workers, friends or family. Our beings, fragmented and stored in the minds of others, live longer than we do.


In 2005, an inventor named Ray Kurzweil published a book entitled “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” In it, he argues that within 40 years, humans and computational technology will become one, allowing us to live forever. Our veins, nerves, muscles, bones, even our personalities and thought patterns, will be made immortal by engineering.


Public, impersonal, permanent. How those you know commemorate you. How those you don’t know will meet you.


He describes it as an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.” One thousand miles of it. Permanent. President Donald Trump would never be forgotten.

Quaking Aspen

I once met a hiking guide, who was, as my grandfather would say, a “character.” The sort of man who would fertilize his backyard garden with his own excrement (this he did). The sort of man who would say that he’d like to be buried with an aspen seed clasped in his hands, so that a tree may grow down and up, nourished by his decaying flesh, with his bones at its heart.


Famous philosophers have talked their way into immortality. Their thought patterns, coded into words, are an open maze through which others can fumble. We read their words, try on their words, make their words say what that which they didn’t but might have said. Their minds live on in the mouths of students.


Time Magazine’s algorithm in 2013 determined Adolf Hitler to be the seventh most significant figure in history.


On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife that the anniversary of the American independence would be forever “commemorated … with Shews, Games, Sports, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations.” On July 4, 2017, I stood on the roof of a building in our nation’s capital, the air sticky with moisture and sparkling with technicolor flares.


Words have power. They are heard by our ears, processed by our brains and felt in our hearts.They have the potential to save and the potential to kill. They can lift a woman off her feet or drive a man mad. They may be read for centuries to come. I have heard words that made my life infinitely better, and I have heard words that made my life infinitely worse. I hear them still.


In August of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a boy named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. He was then reborn as a hashtag, a call to action, a plea to policymakers, the face of a public campaign.


The Kwaio are a people in the Solomon Islands that live in small clan groups. In the 1980s, anthropologist Roger Keesing conducted an ethnographic study of Kwaio culture and religion. When Kwaio die, they become “adalo,” or spirits of the dead. “Adalo” satisfying certain criteria become “walafu,” or ancestors. In order to become a walafu, a Kwaio must have been dead for at least five generations and be associated with a claim to land, among other ritual requirements. These conditions are deceptively simple, as the Kwaio’s hostile environment decreases the likelihood of an ancestor’s clan surviving for the requisite five generations and increases the likelihood that the dead will be forgotten. Long-lasting clans attribute their good fortune to the protection of an ancestor.


Procreation for plants.


“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” goes the song. That’s not true. Neuroscientists haven’t quite figured out what dreams are. They may be the result of random firings of neurons, they may be a way of processing information. They are certainly not wishes from the muscle that pumps blood through your body. But I do think a wish is a dream your heart makes. We wish for that which we can’t have, that which is as false as a dream. We wish for the disappeared, for the once but no longer, for the would be nice. And to yearn is to remember.


Louis Zamperini grew up poor, bullied and drunk. He began running in high school and for three years was undefeated. He set the world record for the mile for his age group, won a scholarship to the University of Southern California and qualified for the Olympics in the 5,000-meter race at the age of 19. After college, Zamperini enlisted to fight in World War II. His plane crashed, most of his fellow crewmembers died during their nearly 50 days in a life raft at sea, and he was captured as a Japanese prisoner of war. After release, ravaged by memories, he began drinking heavily, until finding God as a born-again evangelist Christian. He forgave his captors. His story is portrayed in a book-made-film “Unbroken” and is so inspiring as to be unbelievable. For the average man, the first sentence of this story would have been the last. But all who read his memoir are reminded that they can add another clause to their own.

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