Leaving a legacy: Reflections from planning my father's funeral

Almost exactly two weeks ago, on May 19th at 11:25 a.m., my phone rang. As my wife, two sons, and I were enjoying the annual festival at my sons’ school, I didn’t even look at who the call was from and let the call go straight through to my voicemail.

Twenty-three seconds later, my phone vibrated again, indicating I had received a voicemail message. With this second vibration, I noticed that the call and message were from my parents’ phone number, and immediately I knew something bad had happened.

I walked to the end of the block, as far as I could get in a short amount of time from the noise of the crowd and carnival rides, and listed to the message. “Chad, this is Mom,” the message began. “Please call me.”

Without even listening the rest of the message, I immediately returned the call.

My dad had passed away just a few short hours before.

The last two weeks have been a strange and surreal experience. A few hours after returning my mom’s call, I was in the midst of a seven-hour drive to my parents’ house, where I would spend the next eight days. Those eight days were filled with countless visits from family, friends, and neighbors, and more desserts than I could eat in a month.

On my second day back home, my mom, my brother, and I went to the mortuary down the street from my parents’ house. After my grandpa’s death a couple of years ago, my parents had done much of the planning for their own funerals, but one of the few tasks that remained was writing my dad’s obituary, which prompted me to reflect on not only my dad’s legacy, but my own, as well.

Although my dad hadn’t written any of his own obituary, he did have a few notes on his planning sheet about some of the things he would include, such as some of his earlier hobbies of boxing and racing cars. Surprisingly, some of the things that my 52-year-old brother and I most associated with him were not even mentioned, such as cooking and his love for Nebraska Huskers sporting events.

Perhaps because my dad spent 22 years working at Goodyear (where he retired from in the mid-1990s), my mom, my brother, and I couldn’t believe how many people did not know about his previous career as a chef at some of the most exclusive clubs and restaurants in town. How could so many people not know about one of the things that brought him so much joy?

When the time came for the funeral service, the pastor who led the service spoke of the number of heart beats my dad would have had in his life, and the way in which his legacy was shaped through the culmination of each of those moments.

If the average person's heart beats 80 times per minute, that becomes 4,800 times per hour or a whopping 115,200 times per day. By the time somebody is 80 years old, that person's heart would have beaten approximately 3,363,840,000 times!

Now, can you imagine trying to cram the meaningfulness of those 3,363,840,000 moments into an obituary that was only 211 words in length?

Of course, the true measure of my dad's legacy was in the countless anecdotes and memories shared by all of the people who came to my parents' house to visit with my mom, my brother, and me, who participated in one of the memorial services, or who shared those stories with somebody else at any time throughout his life.

The experience also brought to mind what may be my favorite TEDx talk of all time.

In September 2011, in Miami, Florida, best-selling author Brad Meltzer gave a TEDx talk titled, “How to Write Your Own Obituary.” As morbid as that topic may sound, Meltzer’s talk is really about the legacy you leave others throughout your life.

While weaving in a number of examples from his own life, Meltzer describes that leaving a legacy is as simple as first considering who will be influenced by your life and then determining what kind of influence you will have.

There are four types of legacy you can leave:

1. Personal Legacy: This legacy concerns anyone you effect directly through one-to-one interactions; for example, a teacher who was one of the first people to identify and recognize your potential.

2. Family Legacy: This legacy is how you help or support the people closest to you. It may even include your closest circle of friends, who are the family you choose, as opposed to the family you are born into.

3. Community Legacy: This legacy affects the place you live or the organizations or communities you belong to. In discussing community legacy, Meltzer shares a beautiful example of Jumbo’s restaurant in Liberty City, Florida. Shortly after taking over the restaurant’s operations in 1967, owner Bobby Flam decided to hire three black employees at a time when many restaurants had all white staffs. In fact, Flam said in a 2014 New York Timesarticle that most of his thirty to thirty-five white staff members quit within a month.

This bold stand separated Jumbo’s from every other restaurant in the area. It was no longer just another restaurant; it was a part of the community and a symbol. In fact, Jumbo’s was completely undamaged when rioting erupted in Liberty City in 1980, following the acquittal of four white police officers who had been charged in the beating death of a black man. The nearby area sustained more than $100 million in property damage.

“Jumbo’s was among the first restaurants to have blacks not just washing dishes, but running the cash register and serving the food—it was not to be defiled,” said Dr. Marvin Dunn, author of Black Miami in the Twentieth Century. “That’s where people went after they finished rioting.”

4. Complete Strangers Legacy: This legacy affects people you have never and will never meet. It is the ripple effect of the causes and issues you stand for, spreading out to countless people beyond the reach of your own direct work. It is the torch passed from you to the people you reach through your personal, family, and community legacies, and those people then push your legacy to innumerable others.

Your legacy is how you, no matter who you are or where you live, can change the world.

Author's note: Parts of this post originally appeared in Building up without tearing down: How to cultivate heroic leadership in you and your organization, which was released Summer 2018.