What Do We Owe the Dead? A Question of Ethics
A couple years ago I purchased a volume of essays and sermons by one of my favorite 19th century Christian theologians—Horace Bushnell. (I have written about him here before.) The volume is well over a century old but in good condition. One of the sermons in the book is titled “What Do We Owe the Dead?” It was preached at the dedication of a Civil War memorial and cemetery. My interest here is not to repeat or even express Bushnell’s own thoughts except to say I agree with him that the answer is “much.”
My own interest in this question arises partly from my childhood. My mother died when I was two years old and my father remarried two years later. So I was raised by a stepmother. In midlife I made a point of asking my aunts and uncles (my birth mother’s siblings) about her death, my life after her death and other related matters. My earliest memory is of the day she died, but I did not know what happened—just that people around me were distraught. I was never told she died and was not taken to her funeral. I figured it out sometime in childhood by the fact that we visited her grave and “decorated it” once annually on Memorial Day. (In the part of the U.S. where I grew up Memorial Day is dedicated to decorating the graves of relatives; it is not focused solely on military veterans as elsewhere in the U.S.) But nobody would talk to me about her. When I asked about my mother the answer was always the same, from everyone, and seemed rehearsed: “You have a new mother now.” I knew virtually nothing about my mother when I was growing up. There were no pictures of her in our home and nobody would talk about her. Later, as I said, I made a point of dragging information out of my relatives. (My father never would talk about her. My stepmother helped me with my research.)
As an adult, especially, I have always had the subjective feeling that we owe the dead remembrance—not reverence. I know there are cultures in the world that reverence the dead, especially ancestors, but I do not share that view or practice. But I have never been able to shake the inner conviction that the dead deserve to be remembered. Of course, there are exceptions, but I won’t go into that. I’m talking here about most of the dead.
But is this subjective feeling more than that? Do we have an ethical responsibility, duty, to remember the dead? I say yes, especially insofar as we want to be remembered after we die.
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American culture has a profound aversion to death. That’s not true, of course, with regard to some television shows and movies, but it certainly is true with regard to avoiding the subject of death and seeing the dead, etc. I have taught youngish students for many years and occasionally I ask them how many funerals they’ve been to and how many times they’ve seen a dead human body (even embalmed and lying in a casket). Most of them in their 20s say “never.” And if we do see one, we see it made up to look like the person is sleeping peacefully in a bed (inside a casket). And cremation has become very popular in America. (I occasionally drive by a storefront in a strip mall with a sign over the door that says “Compassionate Cremations.” I always wonder what that means.) When people are cremated there is often no permanent, fixed memorial for them anywhere—as (usually) when they are buried in a cemetery plot. (I totally understand the questionable ethics of using up good and often fertile soil for this purpose and would prefer not to discuss that here. That’s for another blog post.)
I know a man who will not visit his parents’ graves, even on Memorial Day. When I asked him why and even suggested I go with him (because his parents are close relatives of mine) he said “What good would that do?”
That’s a very good question. But my response to him was “Don’t you want to be remembered by your children after you die? Don’t you hope they will visit your grave occasionally and keep your memory alive?” (He won’t even talk about his parents and prefers to forget them and all the dead.) He didn’t respond. At least I could tell he was thinking it over. Eventually he did go with me to visit and decorate his parents’ graves.
Jesus’s so-called “Golden Rule” was that we should do unto others even as we would want them to do to us. Does that include the dead?
But even aside from Jesus’s teaching, I would ask a non-Christian, even an atheist, whether it is consistent and ethical to forget or not honor the memories of the dead—insofar as he or she hopes to be remembered and honored after passing away (our American euphemism for death).
Of course we can’t possibly remember and honor the memories of all the dead. So I am talking here especially about the deceased who in some way sacrificed something for us—even if only by giving us life, contributing to our lives in some positive way, making a positive difference in our lives.
I’ll just give one example here. Many years ago I moved to a new city. Before I moved here I discovered that one of my father’s favorite Christian recording artists died here and is buried in a cemetery just outside the city. I remember that recording artists’ voice; several of his albums were in my parents’ collection at home and my father occasionally played one or another on our home stereo. I also heard his voice on Christian radio—even as late as the 1990s before moving here. (His “heyday” was the 1960s and he died in that decade.) So soon after moving here I drove out to that cemetery and asked to see his grave. The woman in the office showed me where it is. There was no headstone or other marker with his name on it. To make a long story short, I began a public campaign to raise money for his headstone. (Or actually in that cemetery they are not “headstones” as such but metal plaques lying flat on the ground over each grave.) Eventually people who knew him contributed enough money to the cemetery for this fund I set up with them that they could have a plaque made for him and place it over his grave. His widow (who never remarried) and son and daughter came from some distance for the dedication which was attended by relatives and friends and even one “religion reporter” who wrote a story about it in the local newspaper.
Why did I do that? Why did I go to all that trouble? I’m not asking for praise and I don’t claim to deserve any. I never did find out why the recording artist who was quite famous in the 1950s and 1960s had no grave marker. All I cared about is that now he did and that seemed to please his widow and adult children and elderly friends.
Why did I do that? Because I felt it was the right thing to do. I never met the man. But very indirectly he gave something positive into my life through my father’s love for his music. And I simply felt that this was what I would want done for me. (Although I plan to be cremated so instead of a grave marker some plaque of remembrance placed somewhere would well suffice.)
(As an aside… I “inherited” some of my parents’ record albums and before the dedication went through them and found one with the recording artist’s picture on the front with his then teenage son. I too it with me to the dedication. During the time of informal conversation before or after the formal dedication service I asked the now adult son if he owned all of his father’s record albums. He said “I don’t own any of them.” I showed him the album with his picture with his father on the cover. He began to cry and told me exactly where that picture was taken—in a park in the city where they lived and where I now live. I gave him the album and he was extremely thankful. To this day I do not know why the recording artist’s family owned none of his albums. Even his widow did not own any. There’s some deep, possibly dark secret there—I suspect—but I am not interested in it. They truly appreciated everything I did and I felt it was the right thing to do.)
I’m not telling this story to make myself seem heroic in any way. I only did what should have been done by someone else before I did it. (The recording artist’s publishing company that made his records and sold them used to have its headquarters in this city. Why did none of them provide a grave marker for him? It’s all still a mystery to me.)
What do we owe the dead? Insofar as we want to be remembered and honored by our loved ones and by people whose lives we influenced in some positive way we owe at least some of them remembrance and honor in some way—even after the funeral is over. And I believe we owe their non-cremated bodies respect. For example, dead bodies should not be shown on television without good reason. “Do unto the dead as you would have the living do unto you when you are dead” is a good principle too often neglected—especially by the visual media anxious to boost ratings by appealing to morbid curiosity.
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