Words and Meanings – Theme

Most blogs don’t discuss the clarification of words and meanings in their initial development. Since I address many philosophical topics in my blog, I think some time spent clarifying words and meanings is time well spent. I’ll be doing this in occasional words-and-meanings posts over time.

I assert that words are symbols that represent meanings. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines the noun meanings as: what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action. MW defines meant as: the past tense of mean. MW defines the verb mean as: intend to convey, indicate, or refer to (a particular thing or notion); signify. In this last definition, I believe that the word intend underscores the idea of communication. That is, communication is the purpose that words serve.

Along with communication in the moment, words can form a repository of meanings. Any method of recording words, either spoken or written, can serve to store those words for future listening or reading. This capability is without question what makes the recorded word immensely valuable. Additionally, words can also be invented or made up.

My goal in all of this is simply to improve communication between my writing and what readers get from it. As an example, consider the word theme. I encounter this word fairly often and grimace every time I do. I grimace because I feel fairly certain I will find the ensuing narrative confusing. And if I do, then effective communication is lost. Consequently, this is a word I assure readers I will seldom use in my writing.

I usually don’t have too much trouble when theme serves as another word for topic or subject matter. Theme can also refer to an event décor, such as a party with a Hawaiian Luau theme. Again, I get it – the décor will include fake palm trees, grass skirts and leis, maybe some sand and coconuts, and the essential Hawaiian music.

What I have trouble with is when someone asks me to tell them what the theme is of the book I’m writing or reading. Consider what MW provides as definitions for theme: a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation, b: a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern. The problem with “a topic of artistic representation” is that the topic is often anybody’s guess (think Picasso’s more abstract works, such as The Dream, Reading, and La Lecture; then suppose you were given only the work to look at and had to guess the topic or title). Additionally, “a specific and distinctive quality …” could be almost anything since I don’t think there is any limit on what might be considered a quality.

I think I may have a solution to all this. In addition to avoiding using the word theme, the next time someone asks me to tell them what the theme is of a book I’m writing or reading, I’m going to tell them this: it is a topic of artistic representation or a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern.

That should take care of it.

Burial or Cremation

My thoughts on the subject of death have crystalized over four decades of adulthood. I now know what I want to have done with my body after I die. Since I am a part-time sailor, if my body is recovered by my family, then cremation is my choice. If my body is lost at sea, then nature will have taken care of it. This brief essay reviews the reasons for my decision.

Tombstones have served an important purpose in the history of man. Many were placed as a sort of “quasi-shrine” for the grieving family to remember and honor the dearly departed. Additionally, they obviously provide a marker of where a body was buried. Further, they provide information on whose body was buried there a well as family connections, sometimes merely by their proximity to other gravesites. People doing research on their ancestors have found headstones to be invaluable sources of information. This is because written records were often not kept, especially in rural communities, or for those without church affiliation. Or they were lost due to fire or other damage. While there is no guarantee the information on a tombstone is accurate, the responsible party at the time likely thought it was.

In America today accurate paper and digital records of the population prevail, often in multiple forms across multiple government agencies. So there is no need to have one’s body buried to ensure a headstone will exist as proof of one’s time on earth. If one opts to be cremated and have their ashes scattered, then there is no need to even mark where a body is buried. Lastly, after a few generations have passed, who will come to the quasi-shrine to grieve? To be sure, graves make poor legacies.

As a case in point, I know where my grandparents and my parents are buried. However, I seldom visit their graves. When I do it is to pay my respects – a side effect of the quasi-shrine ritual we all are accustomed to. In the case of my grandparents, while I knew all four of them when I was young, I really didn’t know them well. The thing is, there is nothing I can do now – including visiting their gravesites – that will help me know them better. So why visit their gravesites? Except for showing my progeny where their headstones are located, I have no other reason. My respects have all been paid.

As for my parents, I naturally knew them pretty well. They played a big role in my life, especially when I was growing up. Still, I don’t have a need to visit their gravesite. I think the reason is because throughout my adult life I have treated them well while they were alive. Frankly, now that they are dead I don’t think they have a care in the world. I certainly hope not. Obviously, I’m not religious, nor even very spiritual. I am perhaps a bit cynical, for when I see a person take flowers to a gravesite, I can’t help but wonder if they are doing so to honor the buried, or perhaps just trying to make amends.

I’d like to have my ashes scattered in either Charlotte Harbor (FL) or the Gulf of Mexico. Years ago, I travelled to Australia for a month (a bucket list adventure) and thought I would like to have my ashes scattered over the Great Barrier Reef. Since then, however, I’ve come to visit Charlotte Harbor often and have gotten to know the Gulf of Mexico. I think either one of these would be fine. And if my body is lost at sea, then I’ll end up in the water anyway. As I understand it, isn’t that where we all came from?