The Living Dead

The elevator speech. It’s a classic business training tool:  “You’re in an elevator with a venture capitalist, and want to sell him on your whacked-out business idea.  Tell it.  No fluff, just get to the punch.”

We also see a version of this at awards banquets.  The “biography” – where the award recipient is recognized via slide show and narrative.  It’s a life story of sorts, with photos – where we are told more about how a colleague lives outside the workplace.  What are his hobbies?  What does he value?  What’s the wife look like?  Kids?

Last weekend, i had the opportunity to spend a few days with two cousins.  We’d made a pact at the last funeral to spend time together when we weren’t in the midst of planting a loved one.  And so we did!  The weekend was a delicious mixture of adventure and exploring a new town, catching up on current events, and sorting through our shared familial demons.

My cousin, L, is a free-spirited woman, leading an eclectic life.  She’s a columnist for her local newspaper, works as an administrative assistant at a school, has successfully raised four children, and finds time for some off-the-wall hobbies and interests.

As we wandered city streets, gabbing about odds and ends, i learned that one of L’s hobbies is to serve on a committee of volunteer historians in her hometown.  Specifically, they spend time documenting the lives of people buried in the town cemetery, with ‘residents’ dating back to the civil war.

Each year they research ten dead residents.  From these facts, they craft a five-minute script.  During the month of October, they host tours – local actors, wearing custom-made, historically accurate costumes, then tell the tales of the dead.

The script must be factually accurate, but at the same time, sufficiently engaging to hold the interest of those attending the tours. 

“We are giving a voice to the dead”.

She admits, there’s a bit of inconsistency in the quality of the scripts, and sometimes the performances are a little uneven.  Some writers focus on dates and events – “I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1867 and earned my commission on November 12th of that year” may be factually correct, but not exactly the stuff that keeps you riveted in your seat.

pic found here

Giving voices to the dead.  A different approach to living history. 

It certainly triggers another thought experiment…

How would you want your life story told a hundred years from now? 

What would your story be if it was solely based on research by an amateur historian?

29 thoughts on “The Living Dead

  1. I think (if it had to be told) I would like lots of lies. So I could sound exciting perhaps? We are just discovering family we didn’t know we had. My mama (a gold medal liar) told us that her only brother died young, unmarried and childless because he, a doctor, neglected a melanoma. OK. We now, years after my mother’s death discover that he actually died (of a heart attack) after she did and we have four cousins. Half a world away, but cousins just the same.

    It feels a little as if my world is based on quicksand, and I have no idea whether the next step will be safe or not.

    For me, best option is probably to be forgotten. Or to nourish a really impressive tree with my remains.

  2. Your cousin is very dedicated to community life, that is so cool! As a good Jewish girl who is always imagining those ancestors of her family who were not killed/bashed/hurt or in other ways totally erased from history, I am aware of my spot in the long, winding queue of Jewish life, and like the idea of the story continuing.

    • we are going to try to take the old geneology info and update it for the younger generation… it was a few older, dedicated cousins who pulled it together, and it makes some sense for the three of us to whip it into shape for the ‘young ‘uns’…

      i think i just want to be remembered as funny. maybe my five-minute graveyard speech would be five minutes of stand up comedy?

  3. We actually do this at the Gimcrack. Some of our patients have led the most fascinating lives, it’s really interesting to draw them out on all those long forgotten details

  4. as Patterson Hood of the Drive By-Truckers once said, “when to print the legend and when to leave the facts in” or maybe that was John Ford? either way, that about sums it up.

    • my life looks a lot better when you leave out the mundane years as mom, soccer coach, PTO mom, room mother, etc. i’ll take legend over facts.

      you, sir, are legend. i am not confused about this….

  5. I would want the portrayal of me to be done entirely in mime or interpretative dance. But ultimately, it would probably just be some fat guy scratching his ass and burping for 12 minutes.

  6. If the amateur historian hit upon my journals (which I burned, by the way) and/or the sundry letters Jim and I wrote to each other during his Navy years, it would be a very racy biography indeed! On the other hand, a very different picture would emerge if they followed the development of my gardens over my lifetime.

    I really like the project, and I’m sure that the people who go on the tours enjoy them very much. What a great way to celebrate the lives of the less famous, keep the community involved with its own history, and give the cousin and her compatriots something to involve their minds and creativity.

    • i’ve shredded a lot of the glurge and romance. thank god. it makes me cringe when i even think about the crap i used to write. oh, it was glorious in the moment, but ouch…

      i’m trying to find a way to take Mom back to the homestead, and attend one of the performances. i really feel like i need to see this, and i am CERTAIN that Mom would love it… voices of the dead. without a medium. how cool is that?

  7. I think your cousin sounds way cool! What an interesting hobby! I’d like the historian who dresses up as me to be really tall and willowy. What the hell? Then I’d like them to do an awesome stand up routine. To make it easier on them, I’m going to print out my routine on middle aged sex and put it in a time capsule in my backyard. God, I’m nice!

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