What do we owe the dead?

Memorial Day reminds the living that they remain connected to those they have lost.

Fresno Bee, May 26, 2024

Memorial Day commemorates those who gave their lives for the nation. Beyond those fallen soldiers we also remember our other dead. But the flags and flowers are as puzzling as they are poignant. What do we owe the dead?

The dead are likely indifferent to our commemorations. And yet we feel compelled to remember. On birthdays and anniversaries, we raise a glass and toast the dead. Dia de los Muertos and the Japanese Obon festival honor the dead in their own ways. Remembrance is fleshed out in diverse traditions and funerary rites.

Some worry that hungry ghosts demand that we honor them with gifts and sacrifices. Behind this are metaphysical theories about the destination of the soul after death and profound questions about what matters in life, and death.

One famous example of these questions is found in Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone.” The play’s title character buries her dead brother in defiance of the authorities. She explains to her sister that our obligations to the dead are deeper and longer than our obligations to the living. The moments of this world are fleeting. But in the end, Antigone says, we will lie with the dead forever.

Now a skeptic may wonder what all the fuss is about. Can the dust we scatter over a corpse really matter? Do the flowers we leave in cemeteries really accomplish anything in the metaphysical realm? Why would the dead care whether we decorate their graves? Will those ghosts even notice?

In response, we might say that memorializing the dead is more about the living than the dead. When we honor the dead, we express our values in the here and now. A flag, a flower, or a toast is a message to other living human beings who stand beside us. These symbols comfort the grieving. They express solidarity with a cause and link us to traditions that extend back through our ancestors. These ancestors no longer exist. But their memory gives substance to the present and orients us toward the future.

And despite what the skeptic says, we tend to feel responsible to the dead. This is linked to the puzzling topic of “posthumous harm.” Can a dead person be harmed if malicious rumors are spread about her? If we fail to fulfill a dead person’s wishes, has that person been harmed?

A will or organ donor card can create a legal obligation to carry out the wishes of the dead. But would the dead person be harmed if those wishes were not executed? A skeptic might say that non-existent people cannot be harmed. A more tender-hearted approach holds that the dead remain spiritually present. Their ethereal presence creates a real source of obligation and duty.

Our departed loved ones remain present with us even in their absence. This is not simply a hungry metaphysical ghost. Rather, it is the very real presence of the people we love. This happens all the time when friends and family are absent from us. Our loved ones are always here with us, even when they are far away. They are part of who we are. When they die, that absence becomes more permanent. But the presence remains.

We honor the dead not because we fear them or because we believe that they will be disappointed in their ghostly afterlife. Rather, our relationships, our promises, and our loves endure through time and across death.

This includes shared commitments to values and ideals. At Memorial Day, this shared commitment is understood in relation to the nation for which the fallen soldier has died. The rest of the year, we honor the dead by carrying on with the ideas and projects that gave shape to the lives of those we’ve lost.

This is part of what Sophocles called the wonder of being human. We transcend time. We create art. And we dedicate our lives to ideas that will outlive us.

The dead remain with us in the ideals they lived and died for. Beyond the flags and flowers, we honor the dead by carrying those ideals forward. We remember the dead because we love them and the values for which they lived. That love and those values endure in the hearts of the living.

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