What remains?

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readOct 7, 2020

Source : Google photo of Ramses II in the Cairo museum

Synopsis : Life is never meant to be eternal so we are born, we live for a while happily or miserably and one day lie down to sleep forever. Our footprint on the wet sand is soon erased by the ocean waves but it does not mean that we never existed. We leave our trace no matter how faint behind in some form or other like our DNA that is carried on by the future generation. But is it only DNA that we contribute or something more? What really remain?

Last year my wife and I went to Egypt and stood in awe in front of the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II in the National museum of Cairo. We also saw the mummy of other kings and queens there like Seti and Hatshepsut. We were looking at the remains of a person who died thousands of years ago but his body was very carefully preserved through the long process of mummification to preserve it forever. We could see his face, the high ridge of his nose and cheek bones and some hair on his head.

Here was a king who had Moses as his companion since childhood but later when Moses grew up and realized that he was Jewish and had a role to play in the emancipation of his people who were crying out for his help to set them free, he came into loggerheads with Ramses. The rest is history as mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible so I will not repeat it here.

What is interesting is that there is no trace of Moses anywhere, no grave or monument has ever been found or any skeleton or his bone fragments because the Jews did not preserve his body like the Egyptians so all we know about Moses is through what we learned from the Old Testament. It however, does not mean that his remains will never be found because some people are seriously looking for him

The Egyptians took the mummification process seriously or rather they were ordered to preserve the body of their kings and queens by the royalty themselves who began the construction of their final resting place deep underground in the Valley of the Kings and Queens in Luxor and elsewhere . Their crypts were buried deep underground with many treasures and other artifacts that would be needed by the dead in their afterlife. Then all traces of the location were effaced so that no one would know the location to dare to disturb the Kings and Queens in their eternal sleep. The fact that the thieves found some of the locations and robbed many of the tombs of all the treasures is another story that is not worth mention here.

The Jews in Palestine continued their traditions even under the Roman rule and buried their dead in often secret or not so secret underground crypts so many such tombs of very important historical people have been recently found although the final resting place of Jesus is still being searched. The bones of the skeleton do not deteriorate so can last thousands of years without mummification so many important remains have been found in Israel and other countries of the Middle East.

Source : Google photo of queen Arsinoe IV

They found the remains of the Queen Arsinoe IV of Egypt who was murdered by the order of her half-sister Cleopatra but she was not mummified as per Egyptian tradition although her few bones have been identified. She was killed on the steps of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, her blood staining one of the wonders of the ancient world. She was perhaps twenty years old ( Wikipedia).

Today I want to write about what remains of the vast majority of the common people like us who are not descendants of Kings and Queens so I had to give you a bit of history above to set the tone of this blog.

The Moslems bury their dead wrapped in a simple white shroud and place it in a shallow grave in the ground with a simple headstone .Even their kings and queens are buried this way to show that in death all are equal to the common people. It also shows their humility and belief that all people rich or poor are equal in death so they are buried the same way. Only in some countries you will see very grand tombs of their royalty like in Agra where Emperor Shahjehan and his queen are buried in Taj Mahal. His son Aurangjeb who became the Emperor chose to be buried in a plain grave like a pauper under the sky near Aurangabad that we have visited.

The Hindus do not bury their dead but cremate within 24 hours just like the ancient Romans and Greek did. This method is now practiced all over the world now because people find it easier, simpler and hygienic as well besides saving land. Imagine if millions of people start burying their dead, soon there will be very little land left.

The topic of death and cremation or burial is a morbid topic but an essential part of our life because no one lives forever. Most people do not like to think about such things because it makes them feel impotent to do something about it so they look for extreme measures to keep looking younger and try to ignore the facts of life as long as they can.

In some countries, the relatives and friends of the departed mourn for a while where women wear black dress for some time while in other countries like the Philippines people just wear a black plastic tag on their blouse or shirt to show that someone in their family died. They go on living normally because the death of someone does not change their life in any specific way. Women tend to show their grief this way more than men.

In the Hindu culture, the death of a family member is mourned briefly so after a few days a priest is called and some rituals are performed to appease the soul of the departed. At this time some 14 Brahmins are invited and given food and gifts because that is what is required. Then they put up on the wall a photo of the departed to remember them for a while. The next generation soon finds such photos irrelevant and takes them down to replace them with some of their own.

It is hard to feel any emotion for someone who died a long time ago whom you did not know personally like your grandfather or great great grandfather or grandmother so you take down their photos and keep them in your attic where it collects dust.

What really remains after we leave this world? Some people are remembered with a statue in a public square or with a great mausoleum built by the state because they were very important people who did something for their country but we the common people do not fall in that category. We are born of humble parents, live an ordinary life just like everyone else and die one day of some disease or old age so we are turned into ashes leaving no trace behind except a faded photo on the wall that too comes down after a while.

During the war, we the ordinary people become the cannon fodder and die in the battle ground where the bodies rot or sometimes taken away for cremation or burial. Hardly anyone remembers all those millions who died this way because the burden of remembering all the millions becomes too great for any people. The lucky few are remembered in some way by their government but soon the next generation forgets them and moves on with their mundane life

If you go to the Middle Eastern countries, you will see their modern cities and impressive infrastructure but no one remembers all those poor migrant workers who built such beautiful cities but were treated badly by their employers. Does anyone remember those thousands of workers who toiled for more than 20 years to build a masterpiece called Taj Mahal? Does anyone remember those people who built the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China? They built something extraordinary but left no trace of their own. The tourists snapping photos do not even care

So I come to the question — what is our life worth and how we have contributed in some way to make this world better? What will people remember about us who were the ordinary people? Is it necessary that some people remember us when we are no longer around? The story of the common people is a universal one. We are born in humble homes, we get some education and may be get an ordinary job that provides us sustenance and nothing more and then one day we find that we are old and counting our remaining days.

Some of us through our efforts get to live a comfortable life and start accumulating all kinds of things to fill our homes but one day it becomes irrelevant to the next generation if we are lucky enough to produce the next generation. Many are not so lucky because they do not get married and raise a family of their own. Our mundane life makes us believe less in ourselves and more in fate but this is where I disagree.

I have come to know that no single life is ordinary and everyone has a tale to tell that is worth listening to but the tragedy is that very few people make up their mind to tell their stories in some form or other. In the African countries, there still is a tradition of village bards who will tell you the stories of the people who no longer exist because they have an oral tradition to do so but that too is changing in the modern world so the bards are slowly disappearing

There is a reticence among the common people to talk about themselves no matter how great their achievements in life so their stories remain untold. But if someone keeps a diary to write it all down so that people come to know about it later then their stories come out that may have great impact on everybody.

Source: Google photo of Anne Frank

If Anne Frank did not leave her diary, who would have known how she had suffered in the Nazi camps? Anne Frank hid in 1942 from the Nazi’s during the occupation of the Netherlands. Two years later she was discovered. In 1945 she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. (Wikipedia)

Once I was shown a sculpted graphite slate by a widow who so proudly told me how talented her late husband was. I was stunned by the beauty of the sculpture that would have added a shine to any museum in the world but he never got the recognition. There must be so many such people who were great artists, musicians, sculptors, writers , philosophers or athletes who remained unknown and in obscurity. They had the talent that never saw the daylight. Why they had to die in a concentration camp in Bergen Belsen before the world came to know about them ? Why couldn’t Anne Frank grow up to be a great writer of great fame but had to die so young? Why do so many talented people die without leaving a trace like that gentleman sculptor whose name I still do not know?

We all have dreams and aspirations but not all people achieve them due to reasons of their own though we all make some contribution to our society and our country in some way. It is a fact of life that we are not remembered even by our own relatives let alone others. Our memory is long on the hardship we suffer and the insults we receive but short on the contributions other have made and make. If only the tomb stones could talk, what wonderful stories we could have heard.

Secretly we all wish to be remembered for what we have achieved, how we have raised honest and successful children etc. but are ashamed to talk about ourselves as if it is a sin. It is never too late to leave behind something for posterity.

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