Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Passing Into History

There was a small news article that passed by recently. Perhaps you noticed it, but likely not. It was a notice that Frank Buckles, then of Morgantown, WV, had died. I had not heard of Mr. Buckles before reading that article. But the significant point of this particular obituary was that Frank Buckles, age 100, was the last known American veteran of World War I. (2 other veterans from Great Britain still remain alive.)

Each death is a moment in time, and a point in life, worthy of noting. A person moves from one phase of existence to another. We feel joy for the new opportunity that person is now receiving, and – depending upon the circumstances – perhaps relief for the end of their immediate suffering. We feel regret, if not pain, at our end of earthly connection and loss of future interactions with that individual. We take some moments to reflect on the life that person lived: the benefits they gave to others, the ripple effects of their life, the impacts of their actions. Likely their life had consequences far beyond their own recognition; hopefully most of those consequences were for the betterment of others.

All these thoughts fill our minds at anyone’s death, no matter how well or not we may have personally known them. But some deaths may bring an additional recognition to us. Their passing is not only a personal individual loss, but also simultaneously a greater collective loss. The loss of one person has become a loss of a group of individuals – a passing of an era, a way of life, a collective experience. It is a moment when a personal memory, or a personalized relationship to our past, moves from a present connection into “history.”

When Frank Buckles died, hundreds of thousands of our (great-)grandparents moved from our living memory, a sense of live connection to our inherited story, into the permanent time capsule of “history.” No one is left to speak live of that event; no one is left from that group to show up and march at the veteran’s parade. A generation is now gone. “The Doughboys” cede way to “The Greatest Generation” – the next group now working its way ever more quickly into history.

As a Civil War history buff growing up in the 1950s, I remember being similarly struck by the deaths of the last Union and Confederate veterans of that war during that decade. The people and events I had been studying seemed so ancient; yet there were still these two people who had lived then, could still talk about that great event – until that absolute finality of their deaths. At that moment, the voices of hundreds of thousands of casualties and survivors went forever quiet. Nothing was now left except the history books, the letters, the gravestones, and the many granite memorials inscribed “Lest We Forget.” “Living history” moved to just “history.”

Time passes; and at certain points, time closes a door. Frank Buckles reminds us to pause and consider each life’s passing for whatever larger theme that life represents beyond that one individual, the bigger stories that each of us is a part of. And perhaps we should consider what each life represents before it dies – the impact, the relevance, the worthiness, and the meaningfulness of each of us in each day that we live.

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