For me, growing up in a Mexican family meant that death was about curation.
See, in Mexico, we remember the dead regularly – to us, the line between living and dead is not so thick. In those moments, we are expected to interact directly with the person we are remembering.
Our communities created profiles of our loved ones … in their own words. On the Day of the Dead, We reread letters they wrote, quote them, relived our interactions and favorite meals… and because these people do not exist as a static, as they might in a formalize biography, they live on as a multi-faceted memory.
But I wondered, how did other people design these profiles? How often are we able to remember those that we love through their words?
I started a research project for my Learning Wednesday – I call it, The Extended Eulogy.
It started because I had a mentor figure from college who died in April after a long battle with cancer. We knew him as the Master of Saybrook College, my program at Yale. We remembered him through the events he hosted and the comforting words he offered when we needed them.
But to the rest of the world, Master Hudak as a super hacker. For the months that he was in the hospital, receiving treatment until the end of his life, he was as the subject of discussion within the top 10 hits on major hacker chat boards around the world.
I started thinking about the profiles that each of Master Hudak’s communities would build around his memory – how would they curate his profile?
To date, I have interviewed several curators for Extended Eulogies. The first was a friend who was a major curatorial voice behind the NYTimes Best Seller “The Opposite of Loneliness,” which is a collection of essays written by my former classmate Marina Keegan. Marina passed away tragically in a car crash in 2012. This book lives on as her legacy.
The second is an artist who was asked to grant three wishes by a friend of hers as he died of complications from AIDS in 90s. His Extended Eulogy was an exhibition of his photographs that she curated. As you walked through the collection, you walked through a timeline of his creative mind.
Both of these curators told me that when they reviewed the work by their friends… they could hear their voices in it.
I narrowed the scope of my research to three framing questions. Each time I asked them:
How did you remember this person?
How did the world know this person?
What questions did this person spend their life trying to answer?
Just a week or two after Master Hudak’s death, I learned that my grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer.
The Extended Eulogies research project started to morph… into a living profile.
I am on a mission to collect all of the memories for his profile that I can… but most importantly, I need to capture his memories in his own words.
What you need to know about my grandfather is I grew up allowed to believe in legends and heroes, because my grandfather was one of these heroes.
Orphaned twice by 19, he received a partial scholarship to play football for the University of Nebraska and put himself through college while supporting his young family by working nightshifts on the Lincoln, Nebraska Railroad. He was the designer and implementer for the first computer system in Kellogg’s supply chain.
My grandfather created everything he became.
I took a Monday off work to spend the day interviewing him with the StoryCorps app. For four hours, we talked about the future of work, family, and life’s questions big questions… adding dimensions to the man who lived in my memory as a series of family legends and humorous stories.
The difference now between this profile and a biography is that my grandfather has a hand in it.
He is not a writer or an artist, but I want to tell his story and remember him through his voice. His words.
This living profile and the Extended Eulogy is about breathing life into our memories. It is about giving the people we remember enough layers of complexity to remember and celebrate that they were human – that they struggled with questions, and saw themselves one way while the rest of the world may have seen them another way.
The richer the profile, the richer the memory that can live on with us, to interact with us on the Day of the Dead each year. I am grateful for this opportunity to build something full of life with my grandfather.
This is a talk I will give tomorrow at the TED Staff Retreat about my Wednesday Research work. This is a new experiment for me, and it exists largely as a conceptual art piece until I find the right ways to work with my research.