How to remember and honour dead colleagues

Whenever a partner or retired partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore dies, the 198-year-old US law firm offers the bereaved family a "Cravath walk". This involves the retired and active partners marching at the funeral, two by two, in age order - oldest lawyer to youngest.

I heard about the "Cravath walk" last week. Mr Mark Greene, head of the firm's corporate department and of its international practice, told me the most recent walk had taken place at a memorial service about a month ago for a lawyer who had died at the age of 43.

The "walk" sounds slightly macabre, but it makes sense. Bereavement is a disorienting experience, often overwhelmingly so. Having mourning and funeral rituals provides some relief.

But these rituals are not often work-related, unless someone dies while they are still in their job. Those who die performing their duties, such as firefighters or police officers, receive full honours from their colleagues. Those still in other jobs, or recently retired, may have speakers from work, or even the chief executive, talking at the memorial service, recalling their careers.

But longer lives mean work is often far in the past by the time people die. Unless family members take the trouble to tell an old workplace that someone has died, former colleagues may never know. And given the decline of lifelong jobs and the rise of fragmented careers, there may not be a primary workplace to tell - or people there who remember the deceased.

Yet work remains central to our lives, or to any account of our lives, long after we have stopped doing it. It forms a large part of who we were in the minds of our family and friends.

London's Freud Museum says Sigmund Freud's oft-quoted observation about love and work being all there is is not actually in his writings, "although the sentiment is sometimes implied".

Family, friends and work are what we leave behind. If the workplace no longer remembers us, a crucial part of who we were is lost to our loved ones. So if you do hear an old colleague has died, it is a good idea to write to the family to tell them what you remember. It is not an easy exercise.

But in his magnificent book Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, did write of the centrality of "work done and of love loved".

Family, friends and work are what we leave behind. If the workplace no longer remembers us, a crucial part of who we were is lost to our loved ones.

So if you do hear an old colleague has died, it is a good idea to write to the family to tell them what you remember. It is not an easy exercise.

When a retired Financial Times colleague died recently, our internal e-mail was filled with reminiscences not only of his knowledge, professionalism and kindness, but also of his quirks and eccentricities.

They were all fondly recounted, until eventually someone e-mailed that they hoped these memories were being collected to send to his family, which they were.

It is not always easy to know how the bereaved will take humorous recollection. When a much-valued and long-retired colleague died a few years ago, I wrote to his widow, mentioning, along with my high regard for his journalism and collegiality, the most useful piece of advice he had given me.

It came when I had put down the phone after trying to fend off a public relations consultant's invitation to breakfast. My late colleague told me: "Next time, just say that you only eat breakfast with the person you slept with the night before." I hope that reminiscence went down well, but I do not truly know.

This is why we so often put off writing to the families of colleagues who have died. We are not sure how to strike the right note, particularly if we do not know the recipients.

But writing something is better than nothing, and being more expansive can work well. When I wrote to the son of a former colleague, recalling his life both inside and outside journalism, his son wrote back to say that my message had moved him, helping him and his siblings fill in gaps in their father's life that they had not known about.

It made me regret the times I never got around to writing - usually because I did not think I was important enough in the deceased's life. But all colleagues are important. While we are working, we spend as much time with them as we do with our families, often more.

Work takes up so much of our lives. It needs full remembrance when we die.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'How to remember and honour dead colleagues'. Print Edition | Subscribe