Not only is death itself inevitable, another truism is that one has no control over what happens after one passes away. Yes, wills and testaments exist to try and counteract this reality, but as anyone ever involved in an estate dispute can attest, such documents are not incontrovertible.
The bottom line is: once you’re gone, you’re gone. And no matter how organized or careful you may have been while alive, should new questions arise, you’re not around to tamp them down. A person’s life can and will only be judged by what that individual did while he or she was alive.
The recent deaths of two famous individuals highlight that truth, albeit in diametrically opposite ways. On the one hand, there’s Paul Newman, who not only donated all profits from the sale of Newman’s Own products to charity, but made sure to ensure that this practice would continue after his death. His legacy as a philanthropist is unlikely to change.
Then we have the death of Jörg Haider, the right-wing Austrian politician, in a car accident. While his politics have always received a mixed reaction – and when one praises former SS members as men of “loyalty” and “honor”, it’s not all that surprising he’s not embraced unreservedly – the first reactions of many European politicians was sympathetic. Since then, Haider’s legacy as a populist who was unfairly maligned as a Nazi seems in danger of quickly dissipating.
The obituaries posted immediately after the accident carried a tone of ambivalence (probably to counteract the instinctive guilty glee first felt) and many chose to conclude with the emotion-stirring aside that Haider was meant to be celebrating his mother’s 90th birthday that weekend (see, for example, Guardian). Soon after, however, came the not so pristine details: Haider’d been partying at a nightclub; Haider’s blood alcohol level was way above the legal limit; and, finally, today, confirmation of those long bandied about rumors: Haider was a philanderer, carrying on a homosexual affair with his protégé, Stefan Petzner, who has since taken over Haider’s position as leader in the Alliance for the Future of Austria.
How familiar does this sound: “Throw those worn out, holey underwear out! What if you have an accident and are rushed to the ER? Do you want to doctor to think your mother doesn’t take good care of you?” These might sound like the words of an overly-anxious parent, but in reality, this seemingly neurotic nagging holds a deep lesson: we have no idea what life will throw at us. Or, to be macabre, at any point in time, a person’s life can come to an end. And the unraveling can begin.
The only solution to ensuring a positive legacy: lead a life you want remembered. The alternative – well, if one is famous, that is – is the media digging up your secrets and the public reveling in some good old schadenfreude.