“May his name be blotted out, ” the Yimakh Shemo, the wish that someone will be forgotten forever, is the definitive curse in the Jewish tradition.
Perhaps it is an irrational desire, for we shall never know if it has been fulfilled, but the wish to be remembered after we are dead seems deep-rooted in our human psyche.
There are few people of us who would write a will like that of Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge:
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground.
& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
& that no flours be planted on my grave.
& that no man remember me.
To this I put my name.
Perhaps it is the passing of the years, perhaps it is a concluding act of a less than happy year, but there seemed a need to call back from the dead the name of someone of whose existence I was not even certain until his birth certificate arrived in the post from the General Register Office on Christmas Eve.
Great Uncle Fred had been a matter of conjecture until the envelope was opened. My great grandmother had developed a puerperal infection in 1910, it stated this on her death certificate in 1912.
Had the baby survived? The 1911 Census showed a Frederick Stanley Poolton in a Poor Law Fever Hospital, he was nine months old. His age was right.
The GRO index showed that his mother’s name was Poolton, but there was a feeling of a need for incontrovertible evidence.
Fred Poolton had little opportunity of being remembered by posterity. Born in poverty, he is absent from public record until he married Ellen Lucy Wall in 1948. He was thirty-eight, his wife was ten years younger.
In July 1955, he died from bronchopneumonia and a malignant melanoma on his left arm which had secondary deposits. He was forty-five years old. Four years later, at the age of thirty-nine, Ellen Lucy died. They had no children.
Because the family had been dispersed to children’s homes and foster care following their mother’s death when she was twenty-three, Fred was unknown to the family. None among the many nephews and nieces who might have remembered him had known that he existed.
A Jewish friend talks of a belief that people may be rewarded (or punished) in their remembrance by succeeding generations.
There seemed a need on New Year’s Eve to call Fred back to remembrance. His death certificate says he was a mosaic flooring contractor, a man who sought to bring lasting beauty into domestic lives. If he was like his brothers, he was a softly spoken and reflective man, not given to being demonstrative, a quiet man, a gentle man.
May his name live on.