The stream of posts here trying to find the threads back my family stories is less about mourning and loss, but more of, to me, the importance of retelling stories of people and things that are no more.

I waver if somehow I am getting some kind of cross wiring of James Bond movies, is it you only live twice or do we just live and let die? One should not find philosophical meaning in pop culture, but hey, thats what I was fed on. I digress. Let’s put 007 aside.

Not too buried in the memory banks (well except for missing the source) was something a person I forgot told me long ago, and look, see how memory is not at all a computer hard drive. Now this is my imperfectly recorded but indelibly recallable memory.

This person relayed an experience of living with or spending extended time with a family in central Mexico. This family had a tradition of gathering around a wall of family photos, ones who had passed on, and retelling the stories of the time grandmother survived this bizarre circumstance or Aunt so-and so traveled here ton her own to do that. Often the stories were told for the little ones who were born after these people had died.

This person was told in the local culture, there was the understanding of people experiencing three deaths. First is the physical death, when the body stops to function. The second death happens when the body is buried with a service or gathering. But here is the key– the true and third death was when people stopped retelling someone’s stories.

This shred of a retold experience has gotten woven into the way I not only think of family, but the key act of retelling the stories in ways I have learned, with text, audio, photos, and a flourish of maybe imagined detail.

I have tried in vain to find any source of this idea of the three deaths and that the final death is when one’s stories are not told. My internet so-called sleuthing yields restatements, even by rap musicians, but no real source.

I have found many attributions to Hemingway having “said it” but I did not find anyplace Ernest wrote it.

Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name.

Ernest Hemingway, according to many blog posts, reddit threads, quotes collection

This quote is from a book by David Eagleman, self stated “Neuroscientist, Author, Technologist, Entrepreneur” TED talker, etc.

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

David M. Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives quote from Goodreads

Did Eagleman make this up? Did he recraft it? Did he source it (I do not have access to the book) Other books say it’s the opening to one of his chapters.

Here is another iteration, by rapper Macklemore

I heard you die twice, once when they bury you in the grave, And the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name

Macklemore “Glorious” (lyrics) (video)

He rapped it, did he cite it? Well, let’s give applause for annotation, a raft of information found on this lyric at genius

In an interview with The Breakfast Club, Macklemore said that this line was actually inspired by his wife while he was revising the song at the dinner table.

Annotation contributed by user “Eva” and “JBLO” in genius

This annotation yields more iterations, no “source”– oh yes, Mrs. Mackelmore? The annotation mentions Eagleman’s book, cited above and another one from psychiatrist  Irvin D. Yalom, certainly expressing the sentiment:

Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?

Irvin D. Yalom, in his book Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.

And also worth mentioning and usually coming up in reddit is reference to Banksy, who is repeated, but where cited?

I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.

Banksy “said” this according to many redittors. Sure, it sounds like “him”

It’s likely a much older and unsourcable saying, I have caught references to Ancient Eqypt and also lore in Africa.

In the end (well the current one), finding a true source is elusive, impossible, maybe irrelevant, but also fun.

If it’s said enough it feels true, right? Less than where it came from is more the idea of finding value/meaning in it. This is what drives me to write here, in my blog, not someone else’s free rental space which will certainly not likely make it to the first death.

But it’s also that act of writing, re-writing not just stories, but everything, that reifies its “breath” if you will. I plan to keep doing that, til at least one of the deaths, but FFS do not dump my stuff into an LLM to keep parroting me. That is death right away.

If anyone know more sources or versions, I am keen to know.

Update Jun 17, 2024

My go to source, aka Roving Librarian, responded to my quest with both more and varied possible related quotes/references but also cast the “two/three deaths” “remembrance” into musings of faith and existentialism.

You’re right. This motif of a final death when a person’s name is no longer remembered is a real rabbit hole. I doubt you could ever trace the origin because it seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Al Pacino quotes it in Stand Up Guys. You probably found this HackerNews thread, which tells me that you’re not alone in this quest. Where did that saying come from? (I understand the Disney movie Coco shows an ofrenda during the Día de los Muertos which can involve stories and pictures and is perhaps similar to the family tradition you mentioned,  but I haven’t seen the movie.) I too have seen mention of the Egyptians as a source (with no examples or citations); and the Egyptians did build those pyramids and think a lot about the afterlife, but I’m dubious of that origin story. 

Is this final death from being forgotten related to the Roman/Greek concept of fame as a way to live on after death? Is the quote from a religious tradition? In Judaism there’s the tradition of yahrzeit and in Catholicism (but not Protestantism) there’s the idea of saying Mass over a period of time either asking blessings for a deceased person or perhaps giving thanks for their life (“Mass intentions” it’s sometimes called). I can imagine how those ideas might have given birth to a quote like this. 

Apparently when Hemingway said it, he was thinking about the idea of immortality – and I gather about art conferring a kind of immortality—though I can’t find the origin of Hemmingway’s quote either! Another writer, Simon Stranger, appears to be focused on the dying part (erased from life on earth) and not so much about immortality.

So here’s my question. What does this “die twice” idea really mean? Why do so many people repeat it? Is it about an obligation we owe to loved ones who go on before us? Are we called to be witnesses to their lives, and if so, why? Do people think that we actually have any effect on what the deceased feel or experience (do they want to live on?), or is it a way to express our own sorrow or something we believe? 

The Judeo-Christian scriptures have several instances of God remembering people (which I think is an interesting expression—kind of odd to think of God “calling someone to mind”?).  There’s also the motif of people’s names being written in books or in heaven (Malachi 3:16, couple of places in Revelation, book of Luke; all talk about a book of remembrance, the book of life, or names written in heaven). In that line of thinking, our remembrance of people and telling their stories serves us and reminds us of our connections to other souls, but God is the ultimate Remember-er who not only remembers but has written it down. To me “being written” seems like our names are entered in a ledger or a roll book. It’s official. Long-lasting. And of course, our names represent our essence. 

But as I ponder where you could look for the origin of this phrase, perhaps the idea of dying twice is not an old idea at all, but a modern twist on old ideas of our connectedness to people we love and their eternal rest. I’m inclined to think the quote is an expression of existentialist ideas: this life on earth is all there is, so somebody remembering you is all you get for an afterlife.  Fame gives us what passes for immortality. Our art can also make another person famous/immortal, but otherwise, death is final, all flesh is grass. Like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, / When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: /   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, /    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” 

Of course, lots of folks who hold onto Love as the essential truth of the universe, reject “Nothingness” and the bleakness of existentialism. We speak the names and assert the worth of people without regard to fame. We tell their stories to honor them and to expand the reach of the blessings their existence bestowed. 

But I’m musing here. Sorry this is all over the place. I can’t find an ultimate source for the idea of dying twice, but the phrase and the ideas it expresses are certainly a doorway into deep considerations of life, death, memory, and immortality. 

Update Jun 14, 2024

Go team fediverse!

I had to look up Coco (Wikipedia, YouTube) but absolutely, here’s the same story, wrung through the Pixar recipe book. The connection of my original hearing of this as a tale from Mexico is clearly aligned with Día de los Muertos.

Featured Image: I shudder to think of the crap imagery I’d get resorting to GenAI. I don’t need that when I have my own and can find ones created by real people. This one has a story too, at least one of these, if not more, were thee wooden spoons from my mom’s kitchen. I can retell that to myself each time I pick one up and stir something up.

Three old wooden spoons nestled together to form a whole, all sitting on a wooden cutting board of similar texture.
Three Spoons flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)
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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. What a lovely blog post, Alan. I had thought about this years ago then forgotten. The thing I wondered about then and now is though is – how will anyone know which naming is the actual last naming?

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