Essays, Analyses and Meditations

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The Dead and the Living

  • Caring for the dead is uniquely human. Other animals don't bury the dead, don't worship them, don't even remember where the corpses are. Humans built pyramids, mausolea, cemeteries, chapels and sanctuaries for the dead.
  • The dead structure public life: they decide what a state should do (based on history of the dead), they decide what a tribe should do (based on avenging what happened to the dead), they decide what a people should believe (based on beliefs of the dead).
  • The actions of the dead guide the living.
  • Humans invest their dead with meaning.
  • Realizing the power of the dead, Christianity took over worship of the dead and moved the dead to the churchyard.
  • The Napoleonic reforms reverted the role of the dead: they moved the dead outside the city to a special space, the cemetery, just like in pagan times. The justification was scientific (public health) but in reality the move was expressing a diminished role of the dead in the language of science (there were many other unhealthy practices that were not banned). It expressed a new view that the dead were polluting the city. The dead did not represent the living community anymore. They were alien to it. They had to be separated from the living.
  • The cemetery became again a work of art (like it had been in pagan times) to express new ways of being with the dead.
  • The mass slaughters of the 20th century (the two world wars, the communist purges, the suicide bombings and so forth) diminished the very essence of the dead by introducing technological ways of dying that dismember (bombs) or disintegrate (nukes) the dead.
  • The living care less and less for the dead. Ancient rituals of ancestor worship are being lost forever. We don't even want to see our beloved ones die. We bury them in a hurry, often far away from where we live. We visit them rarely. We remember them privately, but the public rituals of mourning and remembering are fading away. The dead are forgotten within a generation.
  • We'll eventually reach a point when society will simply dispose of the dead quickly and nobody will care for them.
  • Then we will finally have become less human and more similar to the other animals who don't care for the dead