How do you want to be remembered?

BMJ Published 22 November 1997    Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1385

How strong you were, so bright and gay / A prince of love in every way / Ah yes—I remember it well.—Gigi

Africa: the name alone inspires and magicks, a land redolent of spice and wild beasts, where champions stalked and men of rock like Burton and Stanley roamed. And it has its very own guardian angel: high in the plateau above Ngorongoro Crater is a simple stone monument to Michael Grzimek.

With his father, Bernard, he was among the first to recognise the precious jewel that the east African reserves represent and the mortal danger they were in; together father and son fought tirelessly to save them and to inform an unsuspecting and apathetic world of the impending crisis. But those whom the gods love die young; if you listen hard enough you can hear the angel’s wings, and Michael Grzimek was killed tragically at the age of 28, when his small aircraft crashed on the Serengeti Plains, perhaps after a collision with a vulture. His portrait hangs in the lodge overlooking Ngorongoro Crater, 9000 feet high in the Rift Valley escarpment; a boyish smile, teeth gleaming, eyes bright, flying scarf streaming out in the wind, his youthfulness enshrined, captured forever, age never to wither him, a young Adonis in the fields of the Lord.

A book that strongly influenced me was Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? Evocative, disturbing in his brutal honesty, Morrison talks about his father’s death from cancer, and of the last time he saw him as he really was, before illness overtook him. His father, a GP, was a big, burly, practical man, and Morrison last remembers him hanging a chandelier and then saying, “Excellent. What’s the next job then?”

It’s a message I try to pass on to my own patients. I’m always disturbed by the two kinds of corpse we see in the coffin after a long neoplastic illness; they either seem to be cachectic and wasted or fat and bloated by steroids, but in either case almost unrecognisable and not representative of the person they once were.

So when their father or mother or sister or friend is lying in the coffin I take them aside and say to them, “Don’t remember him that way, not the way he looks now—he wouldn’t want that—and don’t remember him either as a sick man, and don’t use a recent photo of him for the memorial cards, his face creased, a strained smile, his clothes looking two sizes too big for him. Use an old photo for the cards; remember him as he used to be, healthy, ruddy faced, vigorous, leaping over a ditch in the country, holding up his children, laughing in a crowd at a wedding—think about him the way you want to—think of him the way he truly was.”


And when I saw Michael Grzimek’s picture I thought, “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.” And then I thought, “Yea, verily, I could murder a Big Mac.”


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