Articles - 11th November 2019

The Legacies Culture Leaves Behind

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

I have a practical outlook towards the end of my life – harvest my vital organs! Cremate the rest of my worthless giblets! To ensure that this process is as no-frills as it can possibly be, I’ve even taken the liberty of curating my own funeral playlist which I have shared with my family’s group chat and update on a semi-regular basis. As the recently reformed My Chemical Romance will attest, there’s nothing like some convivial death-music to make you feel alive. Indeed, there’s something liberatory about the act of carving out your own prehumous legacy – to the extent that whenever I’m approaching a busy junction with my headphones on, I will always reconfigure my queued tracks to ensure that if I’m ploughed down by an industrial lorry, my final moments on this earth aren’t spent haphazardly lip-syncing to ‘Read U Wrote U’, but rather some forlorn medley of Russian classical music.

Down in the morgue, the pathologists prise my phone from my rigid thumbs, discovering my damning compilations of Swedish Pop, my drunkenly scrawled novel proposals and mirror selfies. Whilst my desire to sculpt my posthumous remembrances is tinged with vanity, the fear of an uncomposed, exposed legacy is almost enough for me to track down an industrial lorry this very moment for a thorough ploughing. 

A few weeks back, I struck up a light conversation with a charming Junior Doctor in the heat of those obligatory pre-party What do you do?’s. Sandwiched in between a string of office workers, the Doctor’s answer caught me by surprise when she bashfully replied saying that she spent her working days cutting up cadavers. What was most worrying, she told me, was the flagrant lack of pastoral support for young Doctors throughout the process, with virtually nonexistent debriefing processes, albeit, a consolatory Catholic priest floating in the wings. The Doctor’s emotional strategy for processing the absurdity of cadaver handling was through talking to, and naming her bodies, as a means of respecting and honouring their role in the process.

Every so often, she would attend the funerals of the individuals who had donated their bodies to science; meeting the deceased’s family and friends. To the untrained eye of a drunk Humanities student, this sounded rather unusual to me, but the more I chatted with the Doctor, the more I understood that this is a commonplace practise for medical students working with corpses, as a means of securing both comfort and closure. There was something beautiful about the rituals and methods of handling the dead that the Doctor described, which echoed accounts I’d heard from my nurse friends who take pride in preparing the body, opening the window “to let the soul out” and contacting families to allow them to say their goodbyes. 

Arguably, the ultimate work of cultural melancholy and curated legacy, it took sixteen years after the death of his close friend and assumed lover, Arthur Henry Hallam, for Alfred Lord Tennyson’s to finish penning his epic poem In Memoriam A.H.H. Tennyson’s tear-soaked parchment tracks the ebbs and flows of mourning through a breathless suspension of time on the road to resolution. For Tennyson, life is “a fury slinging flame”, time is “a maniac scattering dust” and the presentation of “measured” language are nothing more than a “sad mechanic exercise / Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”

It’s an exposed emotional undertaking and investigation into the pre-language pinnings of grief, scattered with screaming babies, fickle Gods and wilting flowers; It has a touch of anthemic Emo, like a late nineteenth-century rendition of Robbie Williams’ Angels. Whilst Tennyson’s work has been extensively adapted since his own death (aided by the expiration of Britain’s 70 year posthumous copyright laws) the work of the Postmodern playwright Samuel Beckett’s has been strictly guarded by the author’s nephew, Edward Beckett, who Beckett Senior named as his executor shortly before his death in 1989.

Speaking on Deborah Warner’s infamously halted 1994 production of Footfalls at the Garrick Theatre, wherein Warner made some minor editorial amendments to the text and suspended herself in the air, Beckett Junior admitted that suspending the play on the basis of lack of textual fidelity had always been “a very difficult decision… If you stopped it, the actors would be out on the streets again, and perhaps money would be lost on productions. The compromise was to disown the production publicly, take no royalties from it and make sure it didn’t go any further.”

Whilst the Draconian rule of the Beckett estate’s executor is due to last until 2059, acting in his own words as “a catalyst and a guardian”, for me, the notion that a family member, or anyone other than the artist deserves to wield almighty power over the conditions of performance is tenuous at best and at worst, an antiquated system which privileges blood lineage over the executor’s artistic qualifications or talent. This is Beckett’s legacy then; a lacerated tether and scolded successors. 

However much we’d like our art and our selves to be specifically memorialised, our legacies are a messy entanglement of ineffable complications and contradictions. Despite our best efforts, they can perhaps never be meaningfully shaped until the departing dust has settled.


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