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.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article288722960.html#storylink=cpy

Memorial Day and the Ethics of Memory

Fresno Bee May 30, 2021

For Memorial Day, consider a fitting tribute to the dead: Unity in America

Memorial Day began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. You would think that remembering the dead would help us find common ground. But memory can polarize.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a Memorial Day mainstay. Delivered during the war, the speech was both a memorial and an exhortation. He called on Americans to complete the task for which the heroes of Gettysburg had died, to preserve the Union so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

But there are difficulties. What about the rebel soldiers who died at Gettysburg? Should they be memorialized as well? This question lingers as we reconsider schools and military bases named for Confederate soldiers. The nation continues to struggle with how we remember the American legacy of slavery, segregation and war.

One obvious solution would be to stop naming buildings after people. A recent debate about school naming in Fresno shows us the problem. Maybe we should name schools after concepts instead of people. How about schools named “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” or “Kindness”?

Memorials, including our use of names, are ultimately expressions of value. They make an assertion about what the living hold dear. Do the dead care about these memorials? I doubt it.

When Socrates was asked whether he wanted his body buried or burned, he shrugged. He joked, “do whatever you want with me—if you can catch me.”

Since he would no longer be there, it didn’t matter to him what happened to his corpse. He asked his friends to make sure his debts were paid and his sons were educated. He was indifferent to the rest.

This indifference opens the door to significant questions about how and why we memorialize the dead. The dead are no longer here to enjoy their memorials. Some people believe that ghosts haunt the cemeteries. But I doubt the dead care how we honor them. From the vantage point of eternity, our memorials must seem unimportant.

Eternal values transcend our petty squabbles about names and monuments. Names are powerful symbols. A school named for Abraham Lincoln means something different than a school named for Robert E. Lee. But those symbols have meaning for us. Our memorial tributes are for the living. The dead have moved on.

Decoration Day began as a day to bring color and life into the cemeteries of the Civil War. It also functioned to heal a divided nation. Flowers decorated both Union and Confederate graves. Lilacs and roses were preferred, in the colors of red, white and blue.

This memorial process aimed to build unity. Despite the war, the Civil War dead were all, in a sense, Americans. Death can bring us together, if we let it. Our differences fade away in the face of eternal sleep. Mourning widows and grieving comrades share something in common that transcends party, color or creed.

Decoration Day poem by Henry Peterson suggested that the fallen of the Civil War were “foes for a day but brothers for all time.” Peterson continued, “we all do need forgiveness, every one.” And, “in the realm of sorrow all are friends.”

Death is a great leveler and equalizer. So too is grief and mourning.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address proclaimed that the living must be dedicated to the “unfinished work” of those who fought and died. But Lincoln’s vision was broader than a battlefield. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a month before he was assassinated, Lincoln called for malice toward none and charity toward all, while asking the nation to care for the widows, the orphans and the wounded warriors.

The work of compassion and justice is a tribute to the fallen. We honor the dead by loving the living and creating ways to eliminate ignorance, injustice, hatred and fear.

The Civil War reminds us of the danger of polarization. Today our nation is divided, but not hopelessly so. A fitting tribute to the dead would seek to overcome the differences that divide us. We are all Americans, after all. And one day every one of us will be on the receiving end of the lilacs and the roses.