Eternal Memory

My wife will often ask me whether I remember something or other from my childhood, such as what my parents did about such-and-such, or what I remember from elementary school, and I have to tell her that most of the time I don’t remember at all. It is not that I don’t remember anything, but when the memories come, they come unbidden, rather than on command.

But imagine that when you die you have to pick one, and only one, memory from your life to relive for eternity. That is the premise of After Life (1998; streaming on the Criterion Channel) by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Some movies make you say, huh, that’s interesting. Others, like After Life, recalibrate your entire way of thinking about a given idea. Kore-eda is particularly good at doing this, as he does with truth (The Third Murder), love and grief (Maborosi), guilt and death (Still Walking), nature and nurture (Like Father, Like Son), and family (Shoplifters and After the Storm). All his work seems effortless. It is never over-wrought or heavy-handed. Most of the stories take place in a realistic world, but After Life works by imagining something outside of any human experience.

And yet, even within this movie, the themes are thoroughly earth-bound. The logo for the company that runs the temporary stopping place, where people pick which memory they want recreated for them, is two chain links. Memory is the link that connects us to people, as amnesia demonstrates. Memory separates strangers from friends and family. Memory ties the dead to the living, or, in the world of After Life, the living to the dead. We don’t really know who we are without the memories of who we were.

It is shot and cut like a documentary, especially in the first half of the film, while the people are being interviewed. What the various characters discover as they are asked to choose one memory out of however many years they lived runs across the spectrum of human experience. Obviously, not everyone has a large store of happy memories. Many people regret their decisions. Others experience great tragedy or suffering. Some, like Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naitô), have to be reminded of their lives (through a series of videotapes, one for each year of his life). Some do not want to lose any of the memories of their lives and refuse to pick a memory; they are the workers who remain in the limbo of the transitional place, recreating others’ memories.

It is a movie I cannot get out of my head, and the thought experiment is a fascinating one. What single memory would you want to experience forever? But finally, memory, while present in some way as we remember it, is confined to the past. This is, I think, much of the sadness, even tragedy, of a funeral without the hope of the resurrection. Could this desire for something of the person who has died, and having no more earthly future in which to create more memories, explain the eager embrace of “celebrations of life” in the place of funerals? Because those memories are all we have, the pieces of a chain that link us to another person.

Memories, however, are by definition entirely in the past. Not only that, but our remembering often creates something different from what “actually happened.” That may be positive or negative, but our memory is not inerrant. We remember what we want to remember. And memory fades; we forget the way that people talked or the exact contours of their faces. If memory is all we have, it is all in the past.

A funeral, in contrast to both celebrations of life and memorial(!) services, is not about memories, at least not primarily. It is certainly not bad for grieving family and friends to reminisce with stories, laughter, and tears. For some intangible reason, there is healing in those reminiscences. But we need more than past experiences and funny, slightly awkward, stories.

We need a future made of more than memory, and it is only the Christian funeral that offers such a future. A thoroughly Christian funeral proclaims that the most important thing is not the memories of the past that connect us to each other, as tenuous and temporal as they are, but the living Christ who binds us to Himself, so that all who are in Him are joined to each other by a bond that cannot fade or be forgotten. And because Jesus has already entered the resurrection future, the fullness of which we are still awaiting, our future communion with all the company of heaven—the blessed ones who have died in the Lord—is assured. The ties that truly bind are the blood and flesh of Jesus, who is alive now and forever.

This is why it is theological malpractice for any funeral preacher to neglect the resurrection of the body. Such neglect is a failure to give people any reality to which they can cling outside of their own minds and memories. As fallible as we know our minds to be, all we are really giving them in that case is mist and fallen cherry blossoms.

But the one who, in His ascension and glorification, is all in all is able to keep us in remembrance of Him. Our past, our present, and our future are all safe in His keeping.