Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

What do the hit musical “Hamilton,” the 2016 Presidential election, a 154-year old cemetery and a downtown Los Angeles Día De Los Muertos altars and art exhibition have in common?

You might have to take a bit of leap with me on this one, but I’ve been making connections for some time now. If I can keep my thread from unraveling perhaps my riddle will make sense.

Although every word in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is essential to the whole,  the final ensemble piece, “Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story” chokes me up. Every time.

An earlier refrain, “History Has Its Eyes On You,” moves to the end with George Washington and company, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Anjelica Schuyler, and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton reflecting on how history will remember and record their lives. Their story.

The “lump in the throat” response is partially due to consideration of our current place in time and history. Not just the current “mess” in Washington (heaven help us!) but I also hear a challenge gently lobbed to each of us. Who writes OUR story?

Hang on! We’re now leaving Los Angeles and headed to Northern California.

On November 9, 2016, one day following the Presidential election, I was visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Oakland, California.

My son picked me up at the Amtrak station followed by the challenge of weaving home through throngs of angry protestors and police barricades, and by the next morning dozens of businesses in one Oakland district sported the window placard “Not My President.”

I did my best to be somewhat circumspect and offer at least the potential for some perspective (to my kids as well as myself) as we headed to one of our favorite places to walk– the beautiful dog-friendly Mountain View Cemetery. A cemetery walk is a quiet place to clear your head.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also designed New York City’s Central Park, the panoramic views include a distant fog shrouded San Francisco Bay.

The cemetery is a tourist draw in part because of its beauty, but also due to the many ornate crypts in tribute to the wealthy notables of early San Francisco, including founders in California business and government.

Known as “Millionaire’s Row,” wealthy industrialists J.A. Folger (coffee) and Domingo Ghirardelli (chocolate) are buried alongside the Crocker family (railroad magnates) and Lewis Bradbury, a gold-mining millionaire who owned the Tajo Mine in Mexico, and later became a real estate developer.

The first mayors of San Francisco and governors of California are buried in the same cemetery with pioneers who traveled from the eastern parts of the country to follow promises of gold.

The lessons offered seemed clear to me.

Many powerful men with oversized egos are buried in Mountain View Cemetery. And many of them made their fortunes exploiting immigrants and foreign workers.

But death is the great equalizer! During the entire long walk I didn’t hear one word of pompous boasting!

Next stop…back to Los Angeles.

When my friend Andra Watkins visited at the end of October we went to downtown/Grand Park to view the community altars and commissioned works of art created to honor deceased loved ones. Día De Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is widely celebrated in Southern California.

Floating floral altar offerings featured the iconic image of the Lady of the Dead/Catrina placed on a decorated floating vessel filled with marigold offerings, paying artistic homage to Mexico City’s Xochimilco.

Altar in tribute to Natalie Wood

Included were tributes to men and women from all walks of life. Elementary school children contributed items commemorating family members, a pet adoption agency drew attention to animal rescue, and a nearby altar to AIDS victims, with photos and short bios recalling lost friends and loved ones, created a somber place of remembrance.

These lovely memorials told stories of everyday men and women, most without a recognizable name, but having lived life well enough to be lovingly missed, but kept close by those who hold their memory.

Daily we hear stories of disintegrating reputations. I can’t even begin to relate to the stories I read and hear, but they remind me that each of us is writing our own story. And what follows after we’re gone is the question of how will we be remembered. Who will tell our story? And what story?

And with that, we’ve come full circle and back to Hamilton. 

If you’re able to see the musical, DO!

If that’s not possible, listen to the cast recording. Trust me. It’s more than an American story. From wherever you call home, I think you’ll be inspired.











48 thoughts on “Who Lives. Who Dies. Who Tells Your Story

  1. My friend, you have made wonderful connections in this post. I haven’t seen Hamilton (but I want to) – nor heard much of the music – so I listened to the song you mentioned — BAM — the connections in your post became more evident. Besides, I know your passion for local history. Thanks for making my morning better.

    1. Thank you, Frank. I’m confident you’ll have the opportunity to see “Hamilton” and I know you’ll be energized to think about some of our history with a new enthusiasm. If you find the time and have the interest to scour YouTube you will find many clips that would be a good “primer” before a live performance. I’m very glad you took the time to hear the finale. We know how incredibly popular this musical has been, and when I think of all the politicians and business tycoons who probably sat in the front seats, I have to wonder if the words stirred and disturbed their thinking as much as it did me!

  2. The “men with oversized egos” reminded me of the 1980’s when there was a commonly seen bumper sticker that read, “He who dies with the most toys wins” Because of my industry connections I had one that read, “He who dies with the most toys. . . is still dead”

    And as far as the mess in Washington, don’t worry because even though you aren’t hearing about it, our President is fixing the mess.

    1. I definitely like your bumper sticker, Ray. I’ve always felt annoyed at the “most toys wins” example! I think that probably expresses the sentiments of many, but it feels so empty! Your “reality check” is more to the point! And thank you for reminding me that the President is taking care of the mess that has most concerned me. He will do it better than anyone in the history of the world! Believe it!

  3. I can’t wait to see Hamilton. I started to listen to the music but for some reason stopped, thinking I wanted to hear it first when I someday see it.

    WHo will tell our stories? That question has long plagued me. I feel our words and our written words are taking a back seat to technology. To video. I’ve long believed that EVERY story, is valuable, and if captured, will intrigue the most curious of minds.

    1. Your concerns about technology perhaps diminishing the record of our words and lives is interesting. Last month I was able to hear historian Ron Chernow speak and he was asked about how biographers will have archives to pour over in the future. He really didn’t have an answer! I recommend you listen to the Hamilton soundtrack and perhaps grow comfortable with it before you see the live performance. There are SO many words and the lyrics “fly” between the characters. Familiarity won’t in any way distract from your enjoyment, and in fact, may enhance. I’m sure you’ll see it and be as moved as I was! 🙂

      1. Alrighty then! 🙂 I will listen to it.

        I get disappointed with myself, I have to be truthful, on how few books I read compared to what I used to read. I devoured books. Now my piles of books grow as I spend less time reading (though this year I have been happier with my reading time.)

        1. I just saw your second comment, Colleen. I have the same feeling. After I retired I was SURE I’d have more time to read. I think we are doing a LOT of reading…but now it’s blogs. 🙂

  4. I knew you would weave the opening five elements together, Debra, and you did! Quite beautifully, in fact. I don’t know if it is because my father died when I was 19 (and that was the very funeral I’d ever attended) or that as a child we celebrated Memorial Day with a trip and a picnic out to the cemetery with 21 gun salutes and flowers on the family graves, but, I’ve long been interested in final resting places. It was so odd and yet made me feel important when Daddy died. Family members knew where he would be buried (by that I mean my big, fat Greek family:) ) but, I ended up being the one who established “this is my father’s plot, my mother’s and yours, to my aunt). I was obviously the studious kid who paid attention on Memorial Day. So, yep, that’s it. 🙂 Those floral remembrances are beautiful and you connected the dots beautifully, Debra. Much to ponder amid the music. Wonderful, wonderful post.

    1. What a wonderfully personal response, Penny. I think if a cemetery really functions as a “memorial park” it has the potential to be a place for comfort and healing. My mother’s family in the south was very connected to one very old family cemetery and a few times in my life I was part of the yearly “memorial” where we decorated all the family graves. It made a very early impression on me as a loving act to show respect for our ancestors. I can’t help but wonder if losing a parent just as you were on the cusp of your own adulthood instilled the strength to accept burials and the rituals of death with an acceptance many deny. I think you would really have enjoyed the floating altars and the stories accompanying many of them. I know you would have liked all the beautiful flowers. 🙂

  5. As the current scandals keep emerging, I can’t help but to think of how many really good people are out there. No one tells their story. Would they be different if they had power? I don’t think so. It will be interesting what historians will make of our era.

    1. I am completely in agreement with you, Kate. As distressed as I am at the barrage of illegal, immoral and unethical behaviors we are all being challenged to in some ways consider, there are indeed men and women committed to social justice and changing lives for the better. They won’t attain any public praise, perhaps, but in making a difference they’ve written “their story” and I hope will be remembered somewhere. We need to perhaps sing the praises of those we know who are steadfast and trustworthy.

  6. “Many powerful men with oversized egos are buried in Mountain View Cemetery. And many of them made their fortunes exploiting immigrants and foreign workers. But death is the great equalizer! ” Says it all. Too bad these men didn’t/don’t think more about death and their spiritual destinies during their lives.

    1. I am probably very naive, but I am so often “shocked” these days that behaviors I consider immoral or unethical pass as tolerable. I don’t know how these behaviors square with thoughts of their legacies! Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Eva Marie.

  7. A lovely thread of thoughts in this blog. And in the end, whether rich or poor, famous, infamous or unknown, none of that will follow us into the next stage. Of course the story left on this side, will be the one told by those who are still alive.

    1. Thank you, Otto. i’m glad you followed the circuitous trail of my thoughts! I am sorry that so many people in the “public eye” seem to have little regard for their reputation and will unfortunately be “remembered” for stories I’d find disturbing. I am at an age when I think a lot about what will my grandchildren remember about me. If they remember “good things” than that’s all the attention I need. 🙂

  8. Dear Debra, Friday evening on PBS I watched an hour-long presentation of how “The Heights” came to be. It starred the same talented writer and star of “Hamilton.” I gathered “the Heights” was about where and what is “home.”

    And now I read your posting on “Hamilton” and the question of who tells our story. Who write the story of our life? Who are we after we die? And I find myself realizing that in writing my convent memoir, I was trying to find answers to both those musicals: where has my home been–within myself or elsewhere? and who will tell my story and how–shall I try to tell it and thence learn the meaning of my life or shall I leave that to my family and friends?

    Your posting–with it’s “loop”–has given me a great deal to think about. It seems to me that in telling the story of our journey through life we may find both meaning and the home that has always beckoned to us. “Rest,” it says. “Rest in the contentment of a life lived in gratitude” is what I am hoping my writing does for me. It brings me home to myself.

    And I trust that any creative activity–be it writing musicals or starring in them or creating memorials to the cherished dead–will bring us home. Peace.

    1. Oh my dear Dee. You always respond with such thoughtful, and thought-provoking, observations! That is quite a timely coincidence to have so recently seen the PBS presentation. I’ve not seen that particular presentation and I know I would love it. I’m fascinated with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work! I think your convent memoir will be meaningful to all who read because of your ability to weave your individual and unique experience into broader themes that touch all of us as we reach for meaning in our lives. Your quote about resting in the contentment of a life well-lived would be a wonderful beacon for all of us. I’m afraid contentment seems far from reach to so many people! You provide a wonderful template, Dee.

      1. Dear Debra, recently I’ve tried to get in touch with you. I’m concerned that I don’t have the right e-mail. Would you please e-mail me a short note so that I can keep in touch. Thank you, Dee.

    1. That’s what I felt, too, my friend. There’s a lovely and very large memorial park high on a hill not far from us and I remember the first time I passed it on the actual day of celebration and saw families gathered on large blankets, picnicking and “celebrating” together and I had never seen anything like it. I think you’re right that it’s the flowers and colorful appearance of the altars that truly brightens (and lightens) the mood.

  9. Great post, Debra. In all my years of living in the Bay Area, and even a short theater gig in Oakland many years ago, I had never heard of that cemetery. Fascinating. I’ve yet to see Hamilton, but not for lack of trying. I even saw a documentary on the making of Hamilton. What a fascinating, game-changing piece of theatre.

    1. I’m so glad I could share the cemetery with you, Alys. My son and daughter-in-law have only lived in Oakland for a couple of years, and they had actually taken me to another nearby location and we discovered this cemetery together. They were just thrilled, because it’s not only beautiful, but dog-friendly! I saw so many couples walking and even young families sitting high on the hill and just enjoying the view. Such a surprise.

      With your theater background I know you’ll be ready to see Hamilton when possible. You’re absolutely correct about it being a game-changer. I am so in awe of the talent that combined to create such a masterpiece, but the talent of the actors, too. We saw the Los Angeles touring group, not the original cast, but in my mind it couldn’t possibly have been any better at all. I just want to encourage everyone to see it, or at a minimum become familiar with the theme and music. As you could probably tell, it really inspired me. 🙂

      1. Debra, what a fun discovery to make together. That the cemetery is dog-friendly is even better.

        I love the music that I’ve heard and keep meaning to download the soundtrack. It’s great for singing in the car. 😉

        Even with all the hype, everyone I know who’s seen Hamilton, loved it. I’m glad you were inspired.

        I don’t know if you follow Randy Rainbow’s parody videos, but he recorded one to a Hamilton tune. I’ll add the link below.

        He makes me laugh out loud. (He uses the F-word twice, so if that offends you, beware.)

  10. Excellent post Debra 🙂 First the bad news – for ordinary people like you and I only our children will tell our story because they are the only ones who will know the truth and will keep it in their hearts. How we have behaved in their eyes will be the key to how our history is told. The good news is that our story will be a true story – not one rewritten by historians seeking an angle to sell their books. And, in some ways we are also writing our own stories in our blog posts to a far wider audience than our parents could ever reach!

    Cemeteries… Wow. I happen to have a photo published in a book called 31 London Cemeteries to visit before you die. Finchley was largely open land in Victorian times and to resolve the need for burial plots of inner London boroughs two cemeteries were built in Finchley – both around a mile from my house. You will find some famous people buried in them but also ordinary local people. In St.Marylebone Cemetery, now East Finchley Cemetery which is managed by Westminster Council, you’ll find conductor Leopold Stokowsky and Thomas Henry Huxley – champion of Darwin and the theory of evolution. Alongside them you’d find a local young lady tragically taken at the age of 23 whose family had thoughtfully draped a Chelsea FC flag across her tomb. My parents were both cremated and they are commemorated by a rose bush there.

    Our other cemetery is St.Pancras and Islington (now Finchley) which is also Victorian in origin. It is the largest London Cemetery. The Lord’s Melchett – who created ICI – are interred here. Of course, not too far to the south of me is Highgate Cemetery where you can find the grave of Karl Marx.

    1. You’re so right about most of our stories remaining “family lore,” and that’s certainly fine with me. I’ve never been one who needed a wider audience. I love the fact that in our family we still talk about loved ones gone decades now! We remember the stories, most of them being the humorous ones, and we also seem to draw upon their memories for a bit of inspiration now and then.

      That must have been wonderful to have had one of your photos included in what sounds like a very interesting book. I have always enjoyed cemeteries. I grew up living very near one and even as a chid I’d walk through it and enjoy reading headstones. It’s not untypical for me to walk in Southern California cemeteries and see the final resting places of very influential and well-known people, many from Hollywood and the entertainment business, but what’s also struck me is that my own grandparents and other “ordinary” people are buried in the same cemeteries. I feel like when this life is over if we did happen to have a very large and impressive “stage,” it’s no longer particularly impressive.

      I like the idea of commemorating a loved one with something “alive” like the rose bush you’ve planted in honor of your parents. Near where my father is buried someone recently planted a small orange tree! I don’t think the cemetery “rules” allow for that and I’m keeping a watch on it. It makes me smile every time because someone found it meaningful and I hope perhaps it survives. 🙂

  11. Anonymous

    Another terrific post, Debra! I loved the little journey you took us on, and as always, your pictures are great. The floating alters must have been that much more powerful to have seen them in person!

    1. Thank you so much. The altars were really beautiful en masse, and I couldn’t really capture that adequately. Also, we were there the morning the organizers were setting up for a larger evening celebration. Next year I want to plan around this event and I’d hope to be a part of the larger gathering. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing them with me. 🙂

  12. Anonymous

    Thank you for your wonderful insights. I have found the closer I get to leaving this earth, what is the most important is a relationship with a higher power and who is by your bedside when it is time to leave. At this time money, property and prestige means nothing. Being loved is everything. I have really enjoyed your blogs. God bless you and your family. Don Nelson

    1. Thank you so much, Don. What a lovely surprise to “find you” here! I’m delighted to share with you, and in return, truly value your perspective. We don’t know how many days we have left on this earth, but as we age, we do know we have more behind us than in front of us! And I, too, want them to count for much more than money, property and prestige. I appreciate how beautifully you’ve expressed what is, to me, ultimately true. Thinking of you and B at this time, knowing it’s been very difficult. Prayers! ox

  13. This was something special to me, I had two Grandparents who came to America, both happy and proud to become citizens. I think how you expressed the pioneers and the industrial moguls are buried side by side was so true. We all die sooner or later.
    Both reached their goals, my Grandfather became an engineer. They might be rather shocked at the way our President acts and seems disrespectful towards immigrants.
    Hopefully, in the long term, life and our country will level out, more an even playing field. 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing about your grandparents, Robin. I have wondered what my dad would think of today’s “predicament.” He died at the end of last year, and he was a very thoughtful and humble man. I would love to hear how he would assess the current administration! 🙂

  14. I love your title to this post Debra…it makes you stop and think. You’ve been making your rounds, I hope you were able to enjoy your Thanksgiving. Olmstead also was the mastermind behind the emrald lace design in Boston. What forethought…wish more if our leaders could be.

    1. Thank you, Cristina. I am so bothered by our current political structure in Washington, so when we saw “Hamilton” I couldn’t help but wonder how we will all be regarded in the future. I don’t know that much about Olmstead, but I’d like to see more of his work. 🙂

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