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Our narcissistic view of death Memorialisation has become more about the living than the dead

Whatever happened to 'We will remember them'? Credit: St Paul's Cathedral

Whatever happened to 'We will remember them'? Credit: St Paul's Cathedral


March 5, 2021   4 mins

Every November, the Queen stands before 120 tones of chiseled Portland stone on London’s Whitehall and the nation collectively intones, “We will remember them.” A century after the erection of the Cenotaph, the ways of civic remembrance developed in the aftermath of the First World War continue to format our public understanding of how to remember the dead.

It is a year today since the first recorded death from Covid in the UK took place at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Many thousands have died since then. How shall we publicly remember them? Over on the St Paul’s Cathedral website, the Prince of Wales now fronts a virtual Book of Remembrance for the victims of Covid-19. “Remember me,” it is called. And there are now many other websites just like it.

The contrasting grammar is not inconsequential. A century ago, it was “we will remember them”; today it is “remember me”. Back then, an anonymous “unknown warrior” was interred at Westminster Abbey, one nameless death representing the deaths of many; today it is the singularity of each individual death that is recorded. Then, a collective act of remembrance for a heroic collective effort. Today, the anguished cry of an individual for recognition. In so many areas of life, we are a culture that, over the last century, has reshaped our moral consciousness from the “we” to the “I”. And as in life, so too in death.

Despite the fact that it is now the NHS, not the military, that carries much of the weight of our collective national pride, it is still hard to imagine that we have anything like the same the cultural wherewithal to remember publicly those who have died in hospital wards, victims of Covid. Hard to imagine, perhaps, because memorialisation requires a sense that the self is absorbed into something greater than itself, some bearer of continuity – God, or even a sense of national collective effort – neither of which have quite the same purchase on our collective imaginations.

We have never been particularly good at remembering those who succumb to disease. Over twice as many people perished of Spanish flu as died in the First World War. Yet while many thousands of memorials are scattered across country and continents for those lost in battle, we have no equivalent for those who coughed and spluttered to death in their beds.

Are we about to repeat this forgetfulness? Digital memorials aren’t the same as stone ones. Virtual memorials are not a part of a cultural commons like the village war memorial; they don’t have the same presence in our everyday lives. All those digital ones and zeroes, bitcoin souls, have an uncertain connection to either time or place. But, then, the way we deal with death has changed over the generations.

Previously, it was the eventual absorption into the divine life that constituted the essence of our hope of life after death. God alone is immortal and so it is only through some sort of participation in the divine life that we could partake in that eternity. But  what contiually astonishes me today — and I deal with the dead and the mourning on a daily basis — is how many people think that belief in God is superstitious nonsense, yet also think the idea of life-after-death is perfectly reasonable. That paradox doesn’t disturb them. They think that human beings contain within themselves the metaphysical resources to sustain themselves after death.

Perhaps one of the consequences of that shift away from God is that many are keen to personalise their memorials in ways that would have been unimaginable before – at least, unimaginable to all but the very wealthiest and most powerful. There is a heart-breaking argument currently going on in a Leeds graveyard where a mother has been told by the Diocesan authorities that she is not able to personalise the graves of her children with photographs and a collection of their teddies and toys.

This woman has my every sympathy, and there is indeed something heartless sounding about the Diocesan response. But it is also true that the aesthetics of graveyards once represented a sense of collective experience, where the modesty and uniformity of the stone spoke to a sense of the details of human life dropping away as one is absorbed into the infinite love of God, and into the earth. And the calmness of the space seemed to underpin a lack of anxiety about all this. That is why there is something gently re-assuring about church graveyards.

By contrast, a collection of children’s toys represents — more than anything else one can imagine — the immediacy of trauma and pain. So should a headstone express the personality of the deceased, their individuality, or is this the point at which individuality is relinquished into something larger? Emotionally, I am with the mother. Intellectually, I am with the Diocese.

Because what this case represents is whether a memorial should primarily be all about those who are grieving their loss, or whether it is the site of passage from this word into — as Christians might put it — the loving arms of God. To express this at its starkest: are graveyards about the living or the dead? The fact that many people now believe that funerals and gravestones are for the living, not the dead, echoes that shift in our way of thinking about death itself.

My feeling is that – however much we may protest at this – we no longer have the cultural or theological resources to memorialise those who have died of Covid beyond the human memories of those who have loved them. If anything, we are even less able to imagine what a lasting memorial might look like than we were in the aftermath of the Spanish flu.

Atheists, of course, will insist that this has always been the case. And, of course, if they are right about God, then they are right about this too. If there is no God then — unless we are Wellington or Nelson, both of whom have grand tombs at St Paul’s — the impression we make upon this planet will not be sustained for more than a few generations after we become food for daffodils.

Modern memorialisation seems to accept this basic understanding of things. And so, in 50 years’ time, when we search for St Paul’s virtual Book of Remembrance, the Google result will probably read “Website not found” — the contemporary equivalent of “they fly, forgotten as a dream”. For without the kind of metaphysical scaffolding we have all but abandoned, only oblivion awaits for those of who us who one day will pass from mind.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago

The key difference between memorialising war dead and disease dead is, I believe, honouring the element of sacrifice. Those who join the military, fight and die for a cause that (sometimes) benefits others. Those who die of disease just die because of cause and effect

Keith Payne
Keith Payne
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

I do sometimes wonder how much the causes benefits anyone other than those after political or commercial power rather than defensive imperative. The sentimental honouring of those returning in boxes or maimed for life by people in power makes me feel uneasy.

Peter Branagan
Peter Branagan
3 years ago
Reply to  Keith Payne

I replied to wrong commenter

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Branagan
Steve Weeks
Steve Weeks
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Absolutely.

Last edited 3 years ago by Steve Weeks
David Owsley
David Owsley
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

I agree. It goes hand in hand with the bad ‘modern’ use of the word ‘hero’.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

Why would any rational person want a covid memorial? It is twisted. First they died just a death of unexception and mostly complex causes, virtually never of solely covid. Maybe break down the list to the 10s who had no other problems to the 1s who got run over by a bus after testing positive. I mean why not a cancer memorial, broken into sub groups as well?

This covid is almost entirely political anyway. If there is a memorial to covid dead I certainly hope is a memorial to Covid lockdown deaths. The collateral deaths to covid lockdown will very greatly exceed covid deaths, they will be spread out over decades, but in greater numbers, and be from drawn out misery and lost potential and opportunity.

And if we are doing this death rolls we need to then find responcibility. If we quantified the victims we now need the Nuremberg trials as it were, to explain them and get justice. So China and the Wuhan Bat Lab, Hancock, Boris, Cuomo, and Newsom all need to be given their position as deserved, as heroes and thugs depending. Actually there are only thugs, and I would put NHS in with them.

Jack Walker
Jack Walker
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

I greatly respect those in the military that serve and have served this country and will happily put my hand in my pocket each year for the Poppy Appeal. I feel no such compunction to remember those that have dies from a respiratory infection. Their families can remember them the nation need not.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jack Walker
Steve Weeks
Steve Weeks
3 years ago

I think something similar is true of other family sacraments, especially marriage. The celebration of marriage has become “The John and Jane Show”, starring the most wonderful people in the world having the most wonderful day in history. The message and even the mere expense is itself misleading. One of the many ways that we need to put marriage on track to lower divorce rates and higher parenting goals would be for the celebration to be much less about self-expression and much more about the couple’s submission (if not to the overseeing church, at least to duty, society, and to each other).

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Very perceptive article Thankyou.
in my view it is describing an aspect of the glorification of the individual which is an ambivalent consequence of the Enlightenment and dominance of liberal thinking. Clergy see this up close every day as they deal with death, funerals and churchyards.
My experience as a parish priest is that people believe that God is around somewhere and that He is fortunate to be able to welcome their loved one into Heaven. This is a popular version of the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul – an ancient illustration of the glorification of the individual. It is in fact light years away from the Christian assertion that death is followed by judgement (immediate or on the final Day of Judgement), and that whether a person is accepted for Heaven depends on their decision to believe in Jesus Christ.
I’ve taken over a 1,000 funerals and ministered to as many bereaved families. In nearly 50 years I’ve seen a profound change in people’s attitude to their loved ones funeral. They want it to be “personal”. What that often means is that they want a ritual that glorifies their loved one, and is filled with content which focuses all attention on them and very little on God and the message of the Gospel.
This trend toward minimising the divine and emphasising the human was exemplified to the whole world by the funeral of Princess Diana in September 1997. It was a supposedly Christian funeral conducted by a Christian minister for a baptised Christian and yet mention of God,Jesus and the Resurrection was confined to a few references in prayers. It was as if God was being kept firmly in the back pew.
Giles Fraser has shown the glorification of the individual has moved into the churchyard. Nearly every gravestone inscription is centred on the individual often declaring certainty of eternal destiny where frankly there should be no certainty at all.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

…people believe that God is around somewhere and that He is fortunate to be able to welcome their loved one into Heaven. This is a popular version of the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul – an ancient illustration of the glorification of the individual.
For Heaven’s sake! This conflates the ordinary earthly ego-self with the divine-spiritual Higher-Self or, in Christian language, the Christ-Self.
It conflates vulgar, ignorant, modern popular misconception with some of the highest philosophical and spiritual teaching in the western tradition.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Sorry!!

Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings
3 years ago

Sir, I have read your comment three times and find myself in complete agreement with you. Well said.

Mary Jones
Mary Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

???

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

Very interesting to hear your thoughts as someone so intimately connected to this issue. Thank you.

Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams
3 years ago

Dear Michael, I was very interested in your astute observations. Our glorification of our own species is becoming a danger to our survival, as we are causing climate and ecological collapse with our excessive numbers and indulgent behaviours. I am looking for a member of the clergy to help me and a small team develop a messaging campaign to steer us away from the narcissistic tendencies of recent decades. My book explains the need for urgent change in attitudes and describes a vision of an altruistic society ‘Saving Us From Ourselves’ is available free for download here https://poemsforparliament.uk/sufo If you are interested to get involved please email me at bw@poemsforparliament.uk

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

The church I attend in East Yorks has the most beautiful graveyard in the county, yet the modern part of it seems ‘soulless’ and unbearable in contrast to the old, with regimented shiny granite and gravel and vulgar coloured flowers. But if God is love He must be something like the love of people with vulgar taste as well as the love of people with educated, middle class sensibilities, otherwise we would not be capable of recognising the cruder aesthetic expressions of love as love.

When I am dead, I suppose I wish to be buried in an ancient grave, already covered in moss and lichen, over shadowed by a weeping yew tree and with my tombstone slightly toppled over and its words eroded by centuries, barely legible. I suppose that is what most conservatives would like, but though I justify such a desire as symbolic of the desire for the eternal, it is just another form of earthly, snobbish silliness really.

https://youtu.be/kW9JhLNyYvI

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

You should come to South Wales to be buried. The tombstones are automatically toppled over by subsidence from the mines beneath. In my local church, the H&S brigade has had all tombstones deliberately toppled to keep the graveyard ‘safe’.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Our love of overgrown cemeteries is of a piece with Britain’s nostalgic approach to a lot of our past. A bit similar in some ways to our love of old railways and even industrial sites. Of course in their heyday these places did not look anything like the way they now do, but instead were very stark. You could say we have more regard for the trees, flora and fauna than the Victorians did, but that is not supposed to be the main point. Oddly, almost the opposite applies to our churches and Cathedrals, where we have no real cultural memory of how colourful indeed gaudy – and cluttered these places would have been in medieval times.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Thanks to William Dowsing and other like minded ‘nutters’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Not All Saints, Bubwith by any chance?

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

No, I’ve been a couple of times when my daughter was the stand in organist and sung there with my father’s choir once (he’s organist at Hemingbrough) Aughton of course is one of the best at this time of. year, too, when the fields are flooded and the swans are about.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I last visited Aughton some years ago on Palm Sunday, and was delighted to find a local Donkey had been ‘loaned’ for the Service much to the delight of the children!

Otherwise I always find its connection with poor old Robert Aske a bit sad, but it’s isolated location is some compensation. I had forgotten about the Swans, thanks for reminding me.
I almost forget Hemingborough’s spire was something nobody in 78 Squadron will ever forget.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
3 years ago

The difference between deaths in two world wars and deaths with/from Covid are surely that the former were (in the main) young, healthy men who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of us all; while the latter were (in the main) elderly people who unintentionally contracted a disease that hastened their end. Of course, they were/are all mourned by friends and family, but a memorial to Covid strikes me a s mawkish.

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago
Reply to  Quentin Vole

Yes, and many of those young men volunteered even when they knew there was a real risk of death and as you say, they did it to serve the rest of us. Those who didn’t volunteer were conscripted in tens of thousands and I suppose that even after so many years, it’s right that we remember them for what the country asked ( made?) them do. Having said that, I think that personally I am also remembering something about the folly of wars and how we (humankind) keep making the same mistakes – although I do agree that in some cases war if the only option to avoid greater horrors

pathcoin27550
pathcoin27550
3 years ago

A society which does not recognize its past cannot honor its dead; as the dead are the unbreakable link to the past and the prelude to the future. It matters little as to the cause of death. From the moment we enter this world we are destined to leave. This is evident to the famer. It is an opaque mystery to the city dweller. It is a foreign concept to those who memory is a day old.

Chris Hudson
Chris Hudson
3 years ago

A bit of quick sub-editing still needed on this article.

David Sharp
David Sharp
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hudson

Yes: how did they manage to leave a gross spelling mistake right in the first line without anyone noticing it? Things like that can make me stop reading immediately.

Gwynneth Coan
Gwynneth Coan
3 years ago
Reply to  David Sharp

Yes, I thought it meant tones, as in shades, of the stone. Took a couple of readings.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
3 years ago
Reply to  David Sharp

‘Yes’ is not a sentence so your colon should have been a comma or for emphasis a semicolon.

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Hudson

In modern journalism, if it’s approved by an algorithm, it has to be correct.

Ian Standingford
Ian Standingford
3 years ago

A fine article, expressing truths with dignity.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

This Roman Inscription in the British Museum, to a beloved hound might cheer everyone up!

Margarita (‘Pearl’) I was trained to run boldly through strange forests and to hunt out furry wild beasts in the hills, never accustomed to be held by heavy chains nor endure cruel beatings on my snow-white body. I used to lie on the soft lap of my master and mistress and knew to go to bed when tired on my spread mattress and I did not speak more than allowed as a dog, given a silent mouth. No-one was scared by my barking, but now I have been overcome by death from an ill-fated birth and earth has covered me beneath this small piece of marble. Margarita (‘Pearl’),

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I remember a famous grave for ‘Old Dog Tray’ I think, – in some Church graveyard, I think it was Hairfield, that the owner, long ago, got the church to de-consecrate the tiny part, and it be buried there with conventional headstone, as he was such a good dog, and so loved, I remember seeing it from over 50 years ago, and having dogs by me 24 hours a day, always at my work, always sleeping on by bed at night, one by my feet as I type, I understand it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The memorial to ‘Animals in War’ in Park Lane is something I thought I would never live to see, rather like that to Bomber Command a few hundred yards away at Hyde Park Corner.

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
Angus J
Angus J
3 years ago

“They think that human beings contain within themselves the metaphysical resources to sustain themselves after death.”
That is because self-idolatry is the most common form of idolatry, where the self is the highest authority and resource, and where self-actualisation and self-identification (even going as far as choosing ones own s3x) are the highest aims one can have – in other words, being ones own god, with the resulting inner resources of immortality.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
3 years ago

In some countries, e.g. in Roman-Catholic or Orthodox southern Europe, memorials include photographs of the dead individual and even an object to which he or she was attached. There is nothing narcissistic about that. We should not judge everyone by our dour Protestant standards of purity, most of which I doubt most people would admit to if challenged. Maybe the narcissism arises precisely in reaction to that subliminal and unexamined attitude, though it is undoubtedly also real, as a visit to Beachy Head will confirm.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

In some countries, e.g. in Roman-Catholic or Orthodox southern Europe, memorials include photographs of the dead individual and even an object to which he or she was attached.There is nothing narcissistic about that.
I too don’t think it has anything to do with narcissism. Rather, in my view, these practices are atavistic hangovers from earlier times of tribal ancestor worship.
It’s necessary to look beyond Christian Southern Europe to get a true fix on these practices. Think only of China, the example par excellence of the survival and now active re-encouragement of ancestor worship, under cover of Confucianism. The Italians have nothing on the Chinese when it comes to photos and former belongings of the departed ones!
If we go back a bit in history to ancient Egypt, we find the practice of mummification of the dead, which may be regarded as a more extreme example of trying to keep the dead in this world, along with the living.
Whether it be mummies or photos, the effect is to stop the soul freeing itself from the material bodies (physical and life bodies). It is thus prevented from journeying on into spiritual worlds to properly complete its journey between death and a new birth.
In Egyptian times, this had a legitimate purpose, since human beings were still attempting to master the physical world and needed to be weighted down a bit. But today, such practices amount to black magic, since the incarnation of the Christ brought a turning-point in time, and the task is now to become less materialistic, more spiritual

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

“… without the kind of metaphysical scaffolding we have all but abandoned, only oblivion awaits for those of us….”
Beautiful, excruciating essay pointing our cultural being-toward-death, toward the abyss, the Nihil. And not only the loss of “the loving arms of the divine”, we’ve discarded all transcendence: the Platonic trinity, as well as virtue -courage, justice, mercy, charity, selflessness, etc.. And for what? Toys!

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
3 years ago

how many people think that belief in God is superstitious nonsense, yet also think the idea of life-after-death is perfectly reasonable. That paradox doesn’t disturb them. They think that human beings contain within themselves the metaphysical resources to sustain themselves after death.

What, like Buddhists, you mean?

David Sharp
David Sharp
3 years ago

I have a problem with the use of words such as “remembrance” when applied to people who nobody living today could ever have known. Nobody alive today, for example, can have any memories of anyone who fought in World War I, and the same is progressively becoming true of the Second World War. So how can most people be expected to “remember” them? I feel that different words should be found—but I confess that I don’t have any suggestions for the moment.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago
Reply to  David Sharp

I might have misinterpreted you, but I have fond memories of my grandfather who fought at Passchendaele and survived until I was in my 30s.

Tony Nunn
Tony Nunn
3 years ago

You beat me to it. I too have memories of a grandfather who fought in WW1, as I imagine do many others. Perhaps David meant to say “died in World War 1”.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago

Quite a few of us do!
He must mean memories of fighting in WWI. In which case wasn’t Harry Patch our last (UK) survivor?

Eloise Burke
Eloise Burke
3 years ago
Reply to  David Sharp

I’m 82 and remember well my Uncle Walter, who fought in World War I and told about standing near General Pershing, whom he idolized. The older you get, the further back your memory goes. I was born in 1938 and from my present perspective I can see that my grandparents were Victorians, and for that matter, my parents were the products of Victorians. I can feel the contrast between them and the young people you encounter online today. I have not, myself, lost the connection to those who died a hundred years ago – “what passing bells for those who die like cattle ,,,” They churn around in my ever-churning thoughts about war. Will the day come when war would be preferable to living like Winston in “1984”? Whither the human race anyway?
Just my rambling thoughts inspired by “remembrance.”

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Eloise Burke

Lovely looking dog in your cartouche.

David Sharp
David Sharp
3 years ago
Reply to  Eloise Burke

You (Brendan, Tony, Charles and Eloise) are all right, of course: I had initially written “died” and for some reason changed it to “fought”.
Like Eloise, I have fond memories of Victorian grandparents. My maternal grandfather, born in 1870, was even too old to have fought in WWI! As for my maternal grandmother, one of her most cherished memories was of having curtseyed before an aged Queen Victoria.

James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago

It’s stating the obvious isn’t it? Of course memorialisation is a matter for the living. The dead are, by definition, completely oblivious to it. Who would pretend otherwise.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

…what contiually astonishes me today … is how many people think that belief in God is superstitious nonsense, yet also think the idea of life-after-death is perfectly reasonable. That paradox doesn’t disturb them. They think that human beings contain within themselves the metaphysical resources to sustain themselves after death.
Solution to your so-called paradox: Many people have concluded that mere belief in a theistic God is passé; they have moved on from passive church attendance to pursue a modern spiritual path which involves active work upon themselves and proper spiritual training; in the course of such work they have discovered for themselves the true spiritual makeup of the human being and, accordingly, that which carries the soul beyond the threshold of death. In the true Christian tradition, they come to understand the meaning of In Christo morimur. You do these people a disservice by failing to point up the fact that they know their resources as potential, a potential which has to be realised through practice and training, sometimes over many incarnations.
Unfortunately, these demanding subtleties and fine distinctions are not popular with the fundamentalist evangelical brand of Pentecostalism which teaches that a bit of lazy hand waving plus large contributions to the credit-card collection plate will assure a place in the hereafter.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

“Unfortunately, these demanding subtleties and fine distinctions are not popular with the fundamentalist evangelical brand of Pentecostalism which teaches that a bit of lazy hand waving plus large contributions to the credit-card collection plate will assure a place in the hereafter.”
You talk of “disservice”?
The Xtian Church is the repository and continuation of 3k yrs -from Jesus backwards 1k yrs and forwards through Hellenism, Rome, Augustine, Aquinas to Heidegger, et.al., of searching the Meaning of Human Being on his lonely planet. All which you dismiss with a bit of chic spirituality.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  robert scheetz

Sorry, didn’t mean to be “chic”!
As a practitioner and researcher following the path taught by Dr Rudolf Steiner, I find that the people who cause the most problems for true progressive Christianity are not the atheists—because, as Steiner said, they at least have taken the trouble to think carefully about things and train their reasoning faculties. Nor do the worst problems arise from agnostics, who are mostly a pretty tolerant bunch inhabiting a generally ethical secular world. Not even traditional religious denominations normally give cause for grief, since they too for the most part manage to observe a benign tolerance. That would include those evangelical Pentecostals who have been around for some time.
The ones who give the trouble, and who prompted my throwaway comment above, are the followers of Johnny-come-lately self-proclaimed preachers teaching a degenerated Prosperity doctrine. These teachings amount to no more than a hard-hearted worship of Mammon, the God of Money. As Steiner observed, Mammon is one of the principal servants of Satan. It is no accident that financial corruption as well as sexual misdemeanour flourish in these groups. When salvation is reserved to those privileged to belong to the in-group simply by virtue of belonging to the group, and the rest of world is condemned to hell, it is no wonder that a cruel, sadistic culture of blaming the poor for their plight becomes entrenched, that morality becomes a matter of blindly following rigid external prescriptions about sex, and that wealth becomes the ultimate determinant of status and holiness. Hence my remarks about lazy hand-waving and credit-card collection plates…
I’m not familiar with your Xtian Church, but If the comments don’t apply, good for you! Thanks for taking the trouble to reply.

Keith Payne
Keith Payne
3 years ago

The last paragraph reminds me of something I read recently about a cultural group in Africa where the recently dead become the spirits of the ancestors until no one is left who can remember them, when they become the forgotten dead.

Steve Kaczynski
Steve Kaczynski
3 years ago

Even in a more religious age, Francois Villon could write, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” after listing famous people who were dead, including Joan of Arc.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

At issue here is the distinction between, on the one hand, ancestor worship—characteristic of pre-Christian times (and some non-Christian places still today) where heredity and genealogy were primary in the various worldwide Jehovah religions of the Father, passed down through the blood and focussed in tribe and family, and, on the other hand, Christian understanding that the immortal soul must be allowed to free itself from bodily earthly trappings, which are now dust to dust, and soar into spiritual worlds unencumbered by the selfish sorrows of those still living who would try to hold it close to earth.
Whether atheists believe there is anything left to soar is beside the point, since the experiences of the soul after death are matters of spiritual fact, knowledge of which can be acquired firsthand through proper spiritual training, and of which atheists are by their own definition entirely ignorant.

Roger Meadowcroft
Roger Meadowcroft
3 years ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

An odd line of argument given how much earlier than Christianity is the belief that the soul “must be allowed to free itself from bodily earthly trappings”

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

The fuller picture:
Traditions deriving from Hindu India originated the practice of helping souls of the dead escape the body so as to lose no time in the spiritual journey towards reincarnation. A line of development can be traced slowly westward through the original Zoroastrian practices of old Persia. Druidic traditions of northwest Europe later shared in this Indo-European set of beliefs and practices.
Other parts of the world, as noted, nurtured practices of ancestor worship.
Christianity really should have embraced the full set of cremation/reincarnation practices, but those who thought they knew better deemed it wise for the material body to be more emphasised, at least for a few centuries, in order to enhance the value placed upon this single life, as compared to places like India where a multitude of neglects of the conditions of physical life were excused on the basis of emphasis on the hereafter.
Thanks for bringing these considerations forward.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
3 years ago

Many (most?) graveyards in southern Europe have photos on the tombstones. Why not?

David Bottomley
David Bottomley
3 years ago

We should perhaps have a national memorial to the medical, nursing and care people who died as a result of Covid caught while serving others- the country!

Hamish Smith
Hamish Smith
3 years ago

thanks Giles. What is your view on the Latin/Catholic tradition (at least in S America), of the ‘day of the dead’ evening festivities, held in often quite ornate, substantial graveyards, brightly lit that eve for the purpose? On that eve of the year, the whole community goes to the graveyard in families. Families sit by grave /mausoleum/urn niche and remember their departed loved ones by basically having a picnic by candle light. In a way it is about those departed individuals, but it is clearly a family/community event too. I see others have asked similar Qs in the comments here. Although the fact that it is a communal event encourages showing off family wealth and one-upmanship in the form of the family mausoleum…

K Sheedy
K Sheedy
3 years ago

50% of people are below average, yet the vast majority of people rate themselves as above average. This illusion of self-importance is essential to the survival and success of the race. And it always has been.
The vast majority of us will fade away in the memories of a small number of people in a couple of generations or so. That is an average life after death. It’s not so bad, but people seem to be freaked out by their modest individual impact.
Spanish Flu memorials, like covid memorials are about as relevant as having a memorial for people dying of old age.

Jonathan Barker
Jonathan Barker
3 years ago

What could be more narcissistic than believing that you as a presumed separate individual are going to “heaven” when you die or that you will be bodily “resurrected” when “Jesus” comes again or returns. And believing that you are “saved” from death by believing in the “resurrection” of Jesus, which of course never happened.
The real man or woman leans to live by becoming willing and able to die. Such a one is able to confront the difficult barriers and frustrations of this (only slightly evolved) world and, yet, remain capable of ecstasy in every moment.
Therefore the primary initiation that leads to human maturity is the confrontation with mortal fear. Only when the ultimate frustration that is death has been fully and deeply considered and felt and understood as a lawful process can the individual live without self-protective and self-destructive fears.
Only in intuitive freedom from the threat and fear of death is the (apparent) individual capable of constant love of the Radiant Divine Being, and also capable of transcending the frustrating and self-binding effects of daily experience. Only in freedom from mortal recoil is the (apparent) individual capable of ecstasy under all conditions.
There, be fully alive – but learn right life by first dealing with your death. Become aware that you do not live, but that you are Lived by the Divine Person. Live by surrendering your illusion of an independent life in ecstatic Communion with the Radiant Divine Person. Become willing to die in any moment, and maintain to inward armor against it. Die in every moment – by not holding on to your presumed separate life.
Therefore, Remember the One in Whom you are mysteriously arising – until you are only Joy. This is the Law, this is how to live. Death is the forgetting of self in the Radiant Divine Being. Those who are only self-possessed destroy themselves by degrees, until death. But those who constantly forget themselves in Communion with the all-pervading Radiant Divine Person live in Joy.
Such a Lawful process necessarily involves abandoning all of ones “metaphysical scaffolding”. Especially when the dying Process begins wherein all of anchoring of your scaffolding gets ripped off instantaneously.

ian0
ian0
3 years ago

The concept of this article is bizarre. Why would we ever care about the dead?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  ian0

In many ways anthropologically we mark our turn from intelligent animal to human by signs that there was some ritual after the death of a member of the group.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
3 years ago
Reply to  ian0

“Why would we ever care about the dead?” Gratitude, maybe?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

I imagine I share Giles’s beliefs relating to life after death. However, I am with the poor woman who was not allowed to decorate her children’s graves. Those are her comfort and parents who lose children need much comfort.
I wonder if the same authority allow flowers on graves and, if so, if they allow plastic flowers. That would be utterly inconsistent.

Eloise Burke
Eloise Burke
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Cut flowers on a grave, I am told, die, and then you have a vase of dead flowers on a grave. This is thought to be too depressing in a graveyard. I would not mind the sight myself, since it would be clear evidence of recent remembrance of the deceased person.