Essays About

Bias for the Last

We remember the dead only as they were at life's end. Obituary photographs are nearly always recent, though the deceased was eighteen for as long as she was eighty. Through windows, you glimpse a home's inhabitants and from yard signs guess their opinions, but the marble cottages of the dead tell you nothing but a name and date of death. Is it not odd to remember each other by when cancer or car wreck carried us off—an accidental fact that formed no part of our chosen identity? Our lifelong passions and carefully planned profession are forgotten; the unplanned date our plans were halted is engraved in granite. As with the residents of Pompeii, buried under pumice while washing dishes, death fixes us forever in the amber of our final identity. Thus the ancient Greeks favored an early death, that posterity remember their youth and beauty, not their age and decrepitude.

Bias for the final frame of time's moving picture pervades all of life. Politicians are remembered by the scandals that end their careers. A game is won not by the team who leads most, but leads last. Catholics go to heaven or hell for the state of their soul on their death bed, one unforgiven mortal sin trumping a life of virtue.

Never mind first impressions, let us make good last impressions.