The Postself in Social Context

Jack Kamerman. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

For ordinary mortals, constructing a posthumous reputation is lonely work. We hope that our families and friends will remember us as we wish them to remember us, and we take steps to cultivate those memories. It is only under special societal circumstances that the mechanisms for producing posthumous reputations are institutionalized. For example, it is only in particular occupations under particular cultural and historical conditions that societies generate roles and institutions through which our reputations survive us.

Edwin Shneidman’s (1973) notion of the postself is a psychologistic idea that captures the human concern for how others will see us and continue to be touched by us after we are dead. He wrote, “The postself relates to the concerns of living individuals with their own reputation, impact, influence after death—those personal aspects that still live when the person does not” (p. 45). In this formulation, the postself is the product of an individual’s thoughts about how others will remember him or her and, in some cases, an individual’s efforts to cultivate those images. In addition, Shneidman (1980:105-10) used the postself as a therapeutic tool in helping dying patients work through their relationships with those in their immediate circle.

From a sociological view, even these individual efforts are to at least some extent socially grounded. In a more obvious way, societies institutionalize in certain occupational roles the mechanisms through which reputations survive the lives of individuals. This usually takes place when such an “investment” has commercial potential, when it serves the interests of people with power, and when it is consonant with already existing cultural knowledge and values. Statuses and roles survive individual incumbents, and organizations survive the people who populate them. On an even larger scale, particular societies in particular periods generate the roles, the types of organizations, and the underlying cultural values and assumptions that make the survival of reputations more or less likely.

The major focus of this chapter is the rootedness of the postself in the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which it is inevitably embedded. This focus is organized on the three levels of analysis just suggested—the individual, the occupational, and the societal, with the latter two receiving greater attention (Kamerman 1998:5-11). Although these three levels are interrelated, and some concepts straddle more than one level, separating them still makes analytic sense.

The sociologically relevant literature on the postself is demarcated by three conceptual benchmarks: Edwin Shneidman’s (1973) delineation of the concept of the postself, Raymond Schmitt and Wilbert Leonard’s (1986) discussion of the postself as it is tied to occupational roles, and Gary Alan Fine’s (2001) analyses of the societal apparatus through which the posthumous reputations of public figures are formed and reformed. Because the literature that focuses specifically on the social grounding of the postself is limited, this review will be supplemented by suggestions about the directions in which this analysis might be taken.

The Postself as an Individual Accomplishment

Shneidman’s concept of the postself came out of his work with the dying. It is centered in the individual and is future oriented. It is also exemplified by the projections of all persons who think about how others will remember them after they die. In death-denying societies such as the United States, “prematurely” musing about one’s own death and its consequences is often considered morbid. In fact, in societies whose cultures make a confrontation with death problematic, even the dying are discouraged from speaking with friends and family about death, and so, in effect, are hindered in their attempts to negotiate their postselves.

In Shneidman’s view, the postself is future oriented. It is constituted by how individuals want particular people in their immediate circles to remember them as well as by whatever steps those individuals take to cultivate that remembrance in those people. A therapist may use this final investment in how others see us to help dying patients work through present difficulties in relationships with those close to them.

Even though the focus of Shneidman’s concept is on the individual and those in the individual’s immediate circle, people of course operate in social environments. Consequently, the terms and rules of constructing the postself and, to an extent, even the likelihood of a person’s worrying about being remembered are influenced by social forces. In the last half of the 20th century, the preoccupation of Americans with their own self-interest, what sociologists term the value of self-fulfillment (Henslin 2001:53), combined with the decline in the certainty of some form of survival after death guaranteed by religion to create the conditions that made the postself a much more important project for the individual. As Fred Davis (1979) observed in relation to nostalgia, “Nostalgia [in the 1970s] became, in short, the means for holding on to and reaffirming identities which had been badly bruised by the turmoil of the times” (p. 107). If that was true in the 1970s, consider the United States after September 11, 2001—how the victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center should be remembered has become a daily news story, death is an everyday conversational subject, and selffulfillment flourishes on a grander scale than ever. These factors should make us hang on to life more tenaciously than ever, and consequently should make warding off the disappearance of our selves more important and more problematic than ever before.

In this social environment, where, in addition, as some sociologists have suggested, work is central to the way we see ourselves (Kearl 1989:247-48), the logical extension of the attention social scientists have paid to work should also have included a focus on the postself. Yet with the exception of Schmitt and Leonard 1986 article, and not much beyond that apart from Kearl, the extent to which our views of our posthumous reputations are tied to our occupational roles has not been exploited by sociologists nearly as much as it deserves to be.

The Postself and Occupational Roles

Schmitt and Leonard (1986:1093) point out that the postself may be seen both as the personal, idiosyncratic musings of individuals about how they will be remembered by friends and family and as the product of how the public wishes to remember the incumbents of particular occupational roles (in the case of their research, sports figures). Schmitt and Leonard acknowledge that they might have studied other occupations, but they chose to focus on professional sports because this social world most clearly possesses the four social conditions that promote the construction of the postself: the opportunity for role-support, engrossment through participation and communication, comparison through records, and recognition through awards and commemorative devices.

Role-support, most simply, is the support expressed by fans and by their publicists, the media. The media and the world of nonprofessional sports are also the mechanisms through which fans become involved, or engrossed, in the careers of figures in professional sports. In professional sports, records are carefully kept. As Schmitt and Leonard (1986) note, “The competitive world of sport facilitates the comparison of sport acts through its emphasis on measurement and records” (p. 1095). This feature is enhanced by such relatively recent technological developments as the instant replay. In effect, an individual can compete across time and space as was the striking case of the magazine that attempted to decide the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time by having great boxers’ cyberselves compete in virtual matches. Finally, the sports world is particularly adept at commemorating the achievements of its heroes with awards, trophies, monuments, and membership in those occupational pantheons, halls of fame. After all, as Schmitt and Leonard suggest, “the postself requires that one’s acts be recognized and remembered” (p. 1096). This is certainly true for public figures in occupational worlds.

The positing of necessary conditions for occupationally grounded postselves provides a framework into which other occupations may fit. Occupations in the creative arts can also be analyzed in this way. For example, a number of researchers have attempted to analyze the reputations of classical composers (Simonton 1997) and performers (Holcman 2000:5-13). For sociologists, the most important work on the posthumous reputations of composers was done by John Mueller (1951:182-252) and Kate Hevner Mueller (1973), who studied with considerable quantitative precision the reputations of classical composers as reflected in the programs of major American symphony orchestras. The Muellers’ formula, in its final version, defines the representation of a composer in the programs of an orchestra in a given season as the ratio of the number of minutes devoted to the works of that particular composer to the total number of minutes for all works played in that season. In the language of our times, reputations are defined quantitatively in classical music in the same way records are kept in sports, although, admittedly, both the Muellers’ work and the reputations of most classical composers have less currency than do the reputations of figures in sports. In any case, this is a long way from the more personal actions of Johannes Brahms, among several other composers, who destroyed a number of his early works so that posterity would not take them into account in its calculations. The reputations of artists are measured in the society at large (and probably among artists themselves to a greater extent than they would be willing to admit) by the monetary value of the sale of their works at exhibitions and auctions. The reputations of authors are measured by the sales of their books, and their position and longevity on the lists of best-sellers published by the New York Times constitute a sort of record book. More than one author checks the Web site of the most popular on-line bookseller, which lists the position of each book in relation to other books in the Web site’s sales, to find out how he or she is doing in the marketplace.

In relation to the postself, occupations in the performing arts come even closer than composing to occupations in sports. For symphony conductors, members of an occupation with relatively few practitioners and with an almost inevitable emphasis on individual achievement, their recorded legacies become tangible repositories of their postselves. When a conductor dies, music reviewers in fact describe the conductor’s last recording of a work as the way in which he or she wanted to be remembered. In addition, of course, to crasser motives, the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan tried to manage his posthumous reputation by rerecording as many major symphonic works as he could before he died, so that these final interpretive statements would reflect the way he wanted to be remembered by his public. The recording industry gauges these reputations, both before and after conductors’ deaths, by the sales of compact discs and the industry awards particular recordings garner.

After a conductor’s death, the issuance of memorial albums and the retention of already issued albums in the catalog become the currency of reputations. In an interesting variation, the publicity agents of the actor Rudolph Valentino, who died leaving not-yet-released films behind, hired actresses to wail on cue outside the funeral home where his body lay in order to keep up interest in the upcoming release of his films.

The cultivation of a postself related to a social role is a specific example of the negotiation of identity that takes place throughout an individual’s life. In addition to being tied to occupational roles, the cultivation of the postself may be tied to family roles. For example, in a study of the survivors of police officers who committed suicide in New York City between 1934 and 1940, I found that the families of Roman Catholic officers negotiated more acceptable versions of the cause of death so that the officers could be buried in Catholic cemeteries and so that the cause of death was masked within the family, or at least cast in a less unacceptable light (Kamerman 1993). Of course, occupational and family roles may be linked, such as when the survivors of soldiers who have been disgraced or whose heroism in combat went unacknowledged during their lifetimes try to salvage the soldiers’ reputations by securing for them posthumous pardons or medals, respectively.

The social dimension of the postself is made clear when it is linked to the occupational roles and occupational subcultures to which it is tied. Studies such as the Muellers’ may exist in the world of the sociological study of music, and not directly in the lives or worlds of musicians, but they do point to the importance of reputations to a society and to the institutionalized mechanisms, such as record books, through which these reputations are formulated. They are taken into account as practitioners of those occupations contemplate their place in history. To be a professional baseball player, for example, is to know that, because records are so carefully kept, any records one sets might stand or be broken. The institutionalization and quantification of reputations takes the decision about our postselves, to at least some extent, out of our hands. In short, postself roles are impersonal structures with very personal consequences.

These examples also highlight the extent to which quantification has become the language used to define the postself and the fact that the postself in these occupations is increasingly managed by professionals for commercial purposes. Just as these negotiations of identity that the postself represents should be seen in relation to these occupations and occupational subcultures, these occupations and occupational subcultures in turn should be seen in the societal and historical contexts in which they are embedded.

Posthumous Reputations and Society

Although in the strictest sense, the postself is the image we construct for ourselves and posthumous reputations are constructed by others, in reality the distinction is harder to draw. As individuals, we may enlist others in formulating the images we wish to be remembered by and turn over to them the task of steering those images after we die. In any case, after we die, control of those images is in the hands of our family and friends (Stone 1988). In the case of public figures, the situation is even cloudier. The professionals who manage the images of public figures in life usually continue to manage their images in death. In some cases, libraries and archives may be used to put together papers or possessions in a way that builds the images we have chosen. Just as often, such organizations include or excise documents based on whether or not they promote a public image for a given individual that resonates with the organizational image and serves the organization’s goals.

In an important series of studies, Gary Alan Fine (2001; see also Bromberg and Fine 2002) carefully studied the production of difficult, in the sense of stigmatized or “tarnished,” reputations of public figures in the arts and in politics. Although Fine’s work seemingly focuses on individuals, these persons are more accurately seen as public figures whose significance tells as much about the values and institutions of a society as it does about their biographies. In addition, although Fine studies reputations in disrepair, most of his findings seem applicable to the reputations of all public figures.

Fine (2001:7-8) delineates three models that are used to evaluate historical figures: the objective, the functional, and the constructed. The objective model assumes that reputations are based on what people have actually done. The functional model assumes that reputations are formed “in response to the functional needs of society” (p. 8). The constructed model holds that although reputations may be influenced by the objective reality and by the functional needs of society, they are “a result of the socio-political motives of groups that gain resources, power, or prestige by the establishment of reputations” (p. 8). These partial explanations must be taken together to explain how reputations are formed. For Fine, the study of reputations centers on the question of what significance reputations have for the societies in which they are produced and on the question of how the production of these reputations is actually managed. Fine answers that reputations help a society define itself, and reputations are managed by “reputational entrepreneurs,” individuals who, in the arts for example, “take it as their responsibility to burnish or tarnish the reputations of particular artists” (p. 12). That is, particular versions of reputations need sponsors. That means that different sponsors may promote different versions of a reputation. In addition, reputations emerge and submerge over time. Reputational entrepreneurs direct their efforts at specific audiences, and those audiences, of course, may change over time. In sum, as George Herbert Mead (1938) succinctly puts it, “How many different Caesars have crossed the Rubicon since 1800?” (p. 95).

Technology is an important factor in defining the character of reputations and their production. In contemporary society, the mass media are crucial to the formation and distribution of reputations. As Fine (2001) points out, “The media help to determine whom we should know about and care about” (p. 3). If Caesar and Mead were alive today, Mead might also ask which networks have the rights to coverage of the crossing. Certainly for public figures, the media function as both the venue for the display of reputations and a factor in the motivation for worrying about reputations. For the postself musings of public figures, the extent of the meaning of the postself is critical. As with television ratings, the question becomes not simply how people will remember you, but how many people will remember you. The rise in the number and popularity of televised award shows tends to anchor the reputations of public figures in the awards they receive. You can win an occupationally grounded, but in effect national, award such as the Academy Award in front of tens of millions of viewers, or you can win a nominally national award that crosses occupational lines, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In both cases, you become a national figure. These awards become a permanent record of your achievement that will outlast you.

The opening of cyberspace has broadened, and to an extent diluted, the meaning of the term public figure. Not only are public figures in the traditional sense commemorated on Web sites maintained by private and government organizations, but personal Web sites, made possible by advances in technology and motivated by the values of self-fulfillment and individualism, commemorate ordinary people who also become their own small-scale reputational brokers.

The pace and the violence of social change in a society influence the character of and the concern for the ways in which we will be remembered after death. As mentioned above, the events of September 11, 2001, should both trigger nostalgia and brew concern for our reputations in an uncertain future. People tend to sentimentalize the past (Bettmann 1974), and also worry about the future. An era of rapid social change and a culturally diverse population put the reputations of public figures in jeopardy by shifting the bases on which we evaluate their achievements. Was Thomas Jefferson one of the founding fathers or one of the foundling fathers? Such changes have analogous effects on individuals’ thinking about how they will be remembered. To the extent to which our sense of self is hinged to our occupations, the public image of those occupations may put our desired postself at risk.

The dominant ideas of the time also influence the production of postselves. In the course of the past century, Americans came to see themselves as figments of history—that is, as victims of forces beyond their control. Perhaps as a result, their identities were consciously seen as being grounded in entities larger than themselves: the occupations in which they work, the organizations to which they belong, their gender, their race, their ethnic heritage. The irony of this view in a society that at the same time places such a powerful emphasis on the individual is striking. These two conflicting views make an individual’s certainty of leaving the mark he or she wishes to leave more problematic. Both the construction and the study of posthumous reputations are also influenced by the underlying metaphors that have currency in a given period. The places of particular figures in music history, for example, depend on the assumptions current in the eras in which the evaluations take place (Allen 1962).

The confluence of technological changes, social changes, ideas, and social values provides the societal backdrop against which people work out their legacies.


Some of the ways in which societies intrude on the postselves of individual members and some of the circumstances under which societies invest in postself roles have been discussed. Some of the factors that influence both the character of the postself and the process by which posthumous reputations are formed and reformed have also been delineated. The importance of studying the postself as a window on society should be obvious: People’s lives are socially grounded, and so too are their deaths. Unfortunately, however, this apparently isn’t obvious. Schmitt and Leonard’s (1986) work, buried in sociology journals at least 6 feet below public attention, has gone virtually unnoticed since its publication in the 1980s. Fine’s (2001) work, because it was collected in book form and because it deals with figures who carry with them considerable notoriety and celebrity, seems to be doing better, although it is too early to tell how it will fare in the long run. The study of the reputations of organizational leaders is also the study of organizational image and its management. The metamorphosis of J. Edgar Hoover parallels the metamorphosis of the public and organizational images of the FBI. It is also a study of changing cultural values.

Fine focuses on “difficult reputations.” The field might be extended to reputations that carry no stigmatic baggage with them. Autobiographies might be studied using the concept of the postself as an analytic focus. Biographies and biographers might be studied to gain a better understanding of reputational entrepreneurship. The study of the postself tied to occupations might also be extended beyond the narrow range of occupations studied so far. The survival of criminals in total institutions might be studied, using as a focus the influence where you die has on how you will be remembered (Kamerman 1988:44-46). This would be the posthumous counterpart to the study of how these institutions affect an individual’s self-image in life (see, for example, Collins 1998.) Another possible way of linking the postself to occupational roles is to think of how people want to be remembered after they retire, an experience that resembles death in a number of important ways (Kamerman 1988:71-72). Once a sports figure or opera singer, for two examples, retires, the part of that person’s life that he or she wants to be remembered for, and will likely be remembered for, in any case, is over. The manner and timing of an individual’s retirement influences that person’s “posthumous” reputation. This is certainly true in occupations with typical careers of short duration, such as professional boxing or ballet. These suggestions barely scratch the surface; for more, see Schmitt and Leonard’s (1986:1103-6) underutilized suggestions for future research.

Although to a great extent neglected by social scientists, the way we deal with our survival in the memories of others has not escaped the attention of novelists and poets. As Edgar Lee Masters wrote in “The Village Atheist”:

Immortality is not a gift,
Immortality is an achievement.
And only those who strive mightily
Shall possess it.

To which sociologists finally attending to the postself and its social context need only add, in the interests of completeness, not poetry, “Immortality is in the eye of the beholder.”