"As for the rest of us left behind, I hope this is the beginning of a time of healing and learning to be a family again. There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart. We cannot come together in the end to see to it that her grandchildren and great grandchildren can say their goodbyes. So I say here for all of us, GOOD BYE, MOM."
This was the last paragraph of the obituary of Dolores Aguillar, published in the Vallejo Times Herald on August 17th - 18th, 2008.
Many of you may have read something like this on Facebook recently. It was floating around in a story about a woman in Florida that had died early last year. That obituary itself was plagiarized from the one above...which is true. It shocked me because I had never read anything quite like like it (except for the story I'll share in a minute). Unlike others that we might read today, the traditional platitudes to kindness or love do not exist in this obituary. This daughter writes that her mother "made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life." Painful, isn't it? She's sharing too much. Yet when I ask myself why, I easily understand that Mrs. Aguillar was a poor human being and her daughter merely provides an honest description of her mother's life. What makes this unusual is its truthfulness. As we know, the truth of one's life is not often found in an obituary.
Out of kindness.
I sometimes wonder if that is good for us. At one's death, does our avoidance in recognizing some of the mistakes made in the lives of those now dead make it too easy for the living to be less than we can be? Less than we should be?
Think about it. If we knew that more of the truths of our lives would be written and spoken at our deaths, would the living work to be better? To be more?
Yes, I believe we would.
I know of only one man in history who was given a chance to read his own obituary before he died. What he did as a result of that experience changed the world. Here is his story....
Our story starts nearly two hundred years ago. Alfred, our main character, was born to an impoverished inventor and engineer in Stockholm Sweden. While he was one of eight children, only Alfred and three of his brothers survived to adulthood. His surroundings would change for the better though. As life would have it, Alfred's father moved to Russia and started what eventually became a successful business. Money was finally available for his education and it was money well spent. He was clearly an intelligent boy and by the age of 16, Alfred had a thorough knowledge of chemistry and was fluent in five languages.
As you might expect, this boy and his brothers grew into men with drive and ambition. Ludvig and Robert, two of Alfred's brothers, invested in the newly discovered oil fields on the Caspian Sea in Russia. As part of the necessity that is inherent in new business ventures, Ludvig designed what historians now say is the world's first oil tanker. Ludvig and Robert became wealthy and were known for a time as the "Rockefellers of Russia." And Alfred? Well, he moved to France and made Paris his home. There, he used his analytical mind and his knowledge of chemistry to follow his father's path in the mining, industrial machine, and explosives business.
It is fascinating to consider the growth the world went through in the 1800s. Transportation and infrastructure were the keys to modern civilization (and they still are). That meant that the earth literally had to be moved to make way for train tracks, bridges, tunnels, canals, and dams. Also, the earth had to be mined for the ore with which the tracks, girders, nails, trains, and ships would be built. Explosives were need for that kind of effort and, at the start, the explosive at hand was black powder. Unfortunately, it was weak and smoky and something better was needed. Nitroglycerin was a relatively new creation and was much more powerful than black powder. It was unstable though, dangerously so.
Alfred saw an opportunity to profit by improving the safety of nitroglycerin. With his knowledge of chemistry, he created the world's first blasting cap....and thus the first of many patents, when he was 30. The blasting cap created an entirely new industry around high explosives and it started Alfred on the path to financial wealth. Still, while blasting caps were valuable, nitroglycerin was still very difficult to transport due to its unstable chemical nature. Through research and a little luck, Alfred found that nitroglycerin - when mixed with Diatomaceous earth (aka kieselguhr) - became dry and much easier and safer to handle than nitroglycerin alone. It was a watershed discovery that helped to make our modern way of life possible. What did Alfred call his discovery? Dynamite. Boom!
Over the next several decades, Alfred opened factories and laboratories in 90 different locations and 20 different countries. Industry needed what he had created and the money flowed. Alfred also became interested in explosives as powerful weapons of war. He hoped that people would realize they were so deadly that they would never be used and thus wars would end.... and so he created them. Governments and their armies were impressed with his creations and again, the money flowed. Unfortunately, they also used his weapons.
And Alfred grew to be a very financial wealthy man.
In 1888, Alfred's brother Ludvig died. He had been visiting the French city of Cannes at the time and the local newspaper was tasked with writing the obituary. As it was well known that Alfred (and not Ludvig) lived in France, the paper made a mistake in thinking that Alfred was the deceased. And so the obituary of the not-dead Alfred was written. It read in part:
“Dr. Alfred XXXXX, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” It also called him the "merchant of death."
Try to imagine how you would feel if you were Alfred reading those words. You're a person of great intellect and financial wealth. You have hundreds of patents to your name. You have worked with other great entrepreneurs to build the infrastructure that made a more civilized life possible for mankind!
Yet you find that you are remembered as "the merchant of death" in your obituary.
"Why?" you silently cry!
It's because you are. That. Too.
Being "the merchant of death" was not the way he wanted to be remembered.
After reading that obituary, Alfred made a concerted effort to create a positive legacy for his life. In the will he signed the year before his death, he allocated 94% of his net estate to the creation of prizes to those people that "confer the greatest benefit on mankind."
And yes, if you haven't figured it out already, Alfred is none other than the creator of the Nobel Prize.....Alfred Bernhard Nobel. His will directed that there be five prizes in total.
Today, these prizes are viewed as the highest civic honor one can receive. Five hundred seventy-nine prizes have been awarded to men and women over the last 116 years as a result of Alfred's generosity. Nobel was not a perfect man; but of course, none of us are. He was a man that wanted his life to mean something positive though....and he accomplished it.
As an interesting side-note to Nobel's legacy, I am happily intrigued by the downstream effect the Nobel Prize has had on other people. Consider the story below as an example of what I mean.
First, recall in your memory the name Dr. James Watson. He was a co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 as a result of that discovery. Second, be aware that Alisher Usmanov is a Russian billionaire who is very supportive of Putin. I don't know any more than that about him, but I assume the worst. Hopefully, I'm wrong.
In an effort to raise money to support scientific research, in 2014, Dr. Watson auctioned off his Nobel Prize medal at Christie's. The buyer of the medal, at a cost of $4.9 million, was Alisher Usmanov. Immediately after receiving it, Usmanov gave the medal back to Dr. Watson. Usmanov said "In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist sells a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable. Watson's work contributed to cancer research, the illness from which my father died. It is important for me that the money that I spent on this medal will go to supporting scientific research, and the medal will stay with the person who deserved it."
I suspect that Alfred Nobel would have liked the symmetry of this story and its outcome given the complexities in his own life. I certainly do.
Our lives and what we do with them are precious. We want them to be productive and happy and we also like the financial benefits that we enjoy. Still, there comes a time in life when we want our lives to be more than simply the dollars we have. We want to have impact. We want to create legacies of significance.
At this firm, we work with individuals and families to make that happen. Let us know how we can be of value to you.
Bruce Wing is the president of Strategic Wealth, LLC, a Registered Investment Adviser located on the north side of Atlanta.
Entrepreneur, financial guy, husband and father of two great kids.