The Humble Last Wishes of Famous Figures That We Completed Ignored
A man named Khufu said, “After I die, I want you to build me a magnificent pyramid. It will be the tallest structure in the world, and it will in fact go on being the tallest structure for another 4,000 years. Construction will take an entire generation, and many of you will not live to see its completion. But it will live on, as a monument to me, long after all of you are gone, and after whole future civilizations have risen and fallen.”
People obeyed. Granted, the people who did the actual physical labor might not have had a huge amount of choice in the matter, and maybe everyone was terrified to defy Khufu because they thought he was an actual god, but still: They built it. People readily revere men whom they consider great. That’s even true when the men themselves would rather they not.
George Washington Didn’t Want a Monument
After winning the Revolution (so the story goes), the Americans offered to make Washington king. Washington turned down the offer, saying, “I did not defeat King George III to become King George I.”
The real story didn’t play out quite that way — in reality, it was just one random nut with no power who wrote to Washington about giving America a monarch — but people did indeed venerate Washington, beyond what the man wanted. They started building monuments to him even while he was still alive. They also wanted to build a single national monument to him, which would also be a monument to the new country itself. Washington killed that plan, saying it would be a poor use of public money.
After he died, though, people neatly got around that argument by funding the construction of the monument using private money. Then, when that private money dried up and the project resumed after a 20-year break, the government put public money toward it after all — $2 million of public money. What was Washington going to do, yell at them? The man had been dead for almost a century by that point.
For a while, people had floated the idea of building Washington his own giant pyramid. Ha, ha, boy would that have been ridiculous! No, instead they just built him a giant Egyptian-style obelisk. That made much more sense, of course.
Victor Hugo Asked That His Funeral Be Kept Small
Hugo, who died at the age of 83, said he did not want a large funeral. He even asked for a pauper’s coffin, showing solidarity with the poor, much like he had in several of his famous books.
The city of Paris did grant his request for a pauper’s coffin. As for the “small funeral” part, though, nope, the government wasn’t having it. They figured a large number of people were going to pop by no matter how the funeral was organized, and if they let all these people mill together and exchange favorite passages from these revolutionary texts, the people might riot. The best way to prevent this was to co-opt the funeral by turning it into a giant festival, complete with an organized parade and wild merriment.
More than two million people showed up for the fun-eral. That was more than the number of people who lived in Paris at the time. The parade included floats from department stores and performing gymnasts (later, a feminist newspaper would complain about both those groups marching in the parade so far ahead of the suffragettes who also marched there).
People drank all day, and the wine shops stayed open late to cater to them. Couples had sex in the bushes, and police just had to sit back and let them, because they couldn’t arrest them all. As for Paris’ famous brothels, these did not do good business that day. They closed for the funeral, so the ladies could put on their mourning clothes and pay special respect to Hugo’s memory. We imagine they sang a sad, final reprise of “Lovely Ladies” from Les Mis.
A Monk Wrote a Book Called ‘Non-Possession’
Beopjeong, a Korean monk who wrote a dozen books, went one step further than Hugo. He requested no funeral at all. “Don’t make a coffin,” he said. “Dress me in cotton, which I used to wear. Scatter my ashes on the flower garden of the hut where I used to live.” People did follow these wishes, even if thousands of people still showed up for his deliberately unceremonious cremation.
Beopjeong had another request, though: He asked for none of his works to go on being published after his death. This was in line with his philosophy. As an illustration of this, he used to tell about how he was once obsessed with keeping a pair of orchids alive, and how he rushed to water them one day when he realized the sun must be drying them out. It looked to him that they fared no better even after being watered. And so, he decided not to worry about them after all and to give them away, just as a friend had once given them to him.
You can read all about Beopjeong’s Buddhist philosophy in his book Musoyu, whose title means “nonpossession.” You could especially read about it right after his death, because his publisher cranked out a whole lot of new copies, and jacked up the price to 20 times what it had been before. Go buy a copy today! If you really want to embrace the beauty of impermanence, go buy the ebook, because who knows, maybe Amazon will change their policies and suddenly delete it from your device.
Franz Kafka Demanded All His Works Be Burned
If we’re talking about writers who wanted their works to vanish with them, we have to mention Kafka. Here’s a letter he left behind before dying: “Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”
This was no idle suggestion. Kafka had already burned most of what he’d written by this point, 90 percent of everything he’d written while alive. The Max in that letter was his friend Max Brod, who’d been saving Kafka’s stuff for years, starting with cartoons he’d doodled when the two were law students together. Brod brazenly disobeyed Kafka’s wish, putting out books from three of his unpublished manuscripts — The Trial, The Castle and Amerika. If you’re familiar with some of his shorter works like The Metamorphosis and Before the Law, those were already out in the world by the time he died. But all of his novels came out after his death, thanks to Brod, and without them, his earlier stuff also may never have become famous.
Brod justified releasing the works with the following logic: Kafka, even while still alive, had told him he wanted the stuff burned, even separately from that last letter. Brod had replied that he would refuse to. Still, Kafka had left Brod as his literary executor. If Kafka really meant what he said, reasoned Brod, he would have switched to an executor who’d have obeyed him, but he hadn’t, so that meant he must have been kidding.
With logic like that, we conclude that Brod was not just Kafka’a literary executor. He was also the inspiration behind much of the man’s work.