Burial of the Dead

I have been working to finish part I of Properties of Blood,  entitled The Reign of Love.  Some time ago, I put up (on Fleming.Foundation)  many rough chapters, which I have, as is my wont, gone over and over and over to make the argument more coherent, more persuasive, and less tied to the historical details.  Perhaps I have taken too seriously what Vergil said of his own method in composing the Aeneid, that he worked the text into shape like a she-bear licking her cubs.  Part I will consist of seven chapters, the last three of which are devoted to kinship.  In chapter six, which is more or less ready, I have some reflections on funerals and respect for the dead.  After reading Bill de Blasio's attack on an Orthodox Jewish funeral, I was minded to put up some of the paragraphs on this subject.....

Although we moderns look at questions of inheritance largely in economic terms, Jews, Greeks, and Romans were also interested in the continuity of the bloodline and in the carrying out of ritual obligations, particularly to the dead testator and his ancestors.  The eldest son in a Jewish family, in return for his larger share in the wealth, had to carry out funereal duties for his father and take his place in the religious tradition.  

In Athens, where citizenship had to be proved by the phratry, the vital fact of citizenship was bound up with dead ascendants.  Places of burial were not “memorial gardens” to be visited only occasionally: The place of burial bound the living to their ascendancy:

 " In Athens, when the archons-to be are examined for their eligibility, they have to prove their full citizenship not only by naming their parents and grandparents but also by stating ‘where they have their Zeus Herkeios and their Apollo Patroos and their family graves." 

 The survival and success of the oikos—the “house” as a metaphor for the family as a property-holding corporation that lived on from generation to generation—was a major concern for Athenians.  In adopting an heir, a man was insuring the continuity of his oikos, but it was essential to both the birth and the adoptive families that the adopted son forfeit all claim to the property of the family into which he had been born.

The family’s continuity insured the maintenance of the sacrifices and rituals owed to dead ancestors.  Among the most important of these duties was the burial of a deceased kinsman.  The heir had the primary responsibility to see that the rites were carried out properly without any involvement of the dead man’s enemies.  Families had their own places of burial, and part of an Athenian’s proof of citizenship was his ability to identify where his family buried.  The city’s interest in these rituals was not limited to questions of citizenship.  In a political community like Athens, the rituals of the family were mingled with community festivals, such as the Apatouria, at which the phratries paid honor to their dead, and the Anthesteria,  during which the ghosts of dead ancestors were revered and dismissed for another year......

At a funeral during the Roman Republic, there were grave formalities to be observed: The procession was led by musicians, followed by sons with veiled heads and bareheaded daughters.  Men wore the masks of their ancestors and put on the garments that typified the high offices held by those ancestors.  According to Plutarch and Polybius, an effigy of the dead man wearing his own mask was carried on a funeral bed.  

For Romans (and other traditional peoples), the dead have not entirely gone away.  They may, in the manner of Greek heroes, bless their descendants and people in the neighborhood, or, if they are offended, they may prove troublesome.  Once a year at the Parentalia (nine days in February), Roman families honored their ancestors, whose shades (Manes) were brought offerings, and exorcised any malevolent intentions that might have been provoked.  Ovid tells the traditional tale (which he does not believe) that when on one occasion the rites had not been observed, ghosts left their tombs and threatened Rome. [Fasti II 533 ff.]   In May they celebrated the Lemuria, whose rites were generally aimed at exorcizing evil spirits.  Traditional Catholics preserve this understanding of the awesome dead by celebrating All Saints and All Souls. 

We have nothing quite like the Greek and Roman attachment to places of burial in the American experience; nonetheless, tending graves used to be taken seriously by family members.  In the South, this obligation was felt very strongly.  The importance of place and the family burial ground is a commonplace in the list of North/South distinctions.  “What do you do for a living?” the Northerner inevitably asks, while  the Southerner just as inevitably responds (or used to respond) with his question, “Where are you from?” or sometimes, if he is speaking to another Southerner, “Where do your people bury?”   Andrew Lytle, who frequently made this distinction in conversation, celebrated familial piety in his family memoir, A Wake for the Living, whose very title is evocative.  In the world in which Lytle grew up, the connection to kinfolk was a vital necessity, but in the world in which he grew old, the bonds had weakened: 

  “If you don’t know who you are or where you come from, you will find yourself at a disadvantage.  The ordered slums of suburbia are made for the confusion of the spirit.  Those who live in units called homes or estates—both words do violence to the language—don’t know who they are.  For the profound stress between that union that is the flesh and the spirit, they have been forced to exchange the appetites.

Mr. Andrew (as he was known to friends and disciples) had lived long into postmodernity.  The last time I saw him was the occasion of his 90th birthday.  After the ceremony, he invited Mel and Marie Bradford—with me as an appendage—to the Log Cabin for quiet conversation.  He was tired, after so much rigmarole, but his mind was still lively, though it dwelt much on the past I could not help thinking that he was, perhaps, fortunate in not living any longer.  He would have been far more at home in the Roman Republic than in Schaumburg, Illinois.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    My twin brother died April 9. He lived in MA, I am 900 miles south. One of his sons lives in CA. He always tended the graves of our ancestors and on special days like Mother’s day or Father’s day he would bring flowers there, sit by the grave site and say a Rosary for them. Because of this pandemic, he will be buried in the family plot at a later time, or should I say his ashes will be buried. I struggle with that because the brother I had was the whole person. His ashes? I don’t know his ashes. But my daughter said his spirit is in heaven. Yes, he suffers no more. That makes me feel better. But I still miss my dear brother. Is that selfish of me? Maybe it’s the many conversations we had that I miss. When the phone rings and I answer, he is no longer there.

  2. Nick Pilgrim says:

    Thank you, Professor Fleming, for your wise words from the ancients Greeks. If our governmental authorities read old books, their commands might contain more wisdom than they currently do.

    Proper burial of the dead cannot be done under social-distancing policies, which―our governors tell us―are designed to save lives. Too many Americans, forgetting God and their ancestors, have accepted these anti-social policies without protest. A man I knew died last week, and he was given a celebration of life with all participants (including the pastor) joining together online from their homes. His burial was attended by five of his relations, who lived in the vicinity of the cemetery. Worse than his impious laying to rest were his miserable last weeks. His large, senior-living facility closed its doors to all visitors, depriving him of the personal touch of his loved ones. Not only did the lockdowns prevent his relatives from travelling out-of-state to see him, his daughter and grandchildren who live only a few miles away could not visit him daily, as they had been doing. Instead, they spoke with him every day on the telephone. I would venture to say that he died from loneliness.

    Two other anecdotes suggest that the ends of many people with the Coronavirus are at least made wretched, if not hastened along, by the forbidding of all visitors to the nursing homes and hospitals. An old man from my church went to the doctor with a cough. His doctor discovered that he had the Coronavirus and sent him to the hospital. His wife was not permitted to visit him there. He pined for her, and she was distraught; but the hospital forbade her to enter. Eventually he was placed on a ventilator and shortly thereafter died, attended only by medical personnel. Similarly, my neighbor’s cousin died yesterday in a large, luxurious nursing home. Her sisters, cousins, and children, all of whom lived in the area, no longer came to visit and she could not understand why. She contracted the Coronavirus despite all of the precautions. After she was placed on a ventilator she stopped eating and eventually died, having not had a hug from a loved one in more than a month.

    Indeed, Social-distancing policies seem to be hastening death rather than saving lives. The statistics might give us many facts, but anecdotes and old books contain more truth.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Pilgrim,

    I was on a ventilator for an extended period back in ’94 and came out with “pump head”, brain damage caused by the ventilator (along with more severe brain damage before that, caused by extreme hypoxia) Therefore, I know a thing or two about it. Ventilators kept me from dying, but that was because because I was able to figure out that I had to let the ventilator do the work, and not try to breathe on my own. That’s the problem with ventilators. I’ll bet that the two people to whom you are referring, being very ill, were in a mental state which prevented them from being able to understand that they had to let the machine do the breathing. They tried to breathe on their own, worked against the machine, and that killed them. This is very common. It happens all the time with severely ill or severely injured people who are put on ventilators, especially if they are unconscious when they are put on the ventilator, wake up in pain and shock, and get scared.

    I posit that many of these people really don’t need to be put on ventilators, and that the ventilators are killing a lot of people, and giving brain damage to many more. I wonder who in the establishment came up with the idea of prescribing the use of ventilators for this disease, and if they had connections with the manufacturers.

  4. Dot says:

    I don’t know what you’re talking about regarding the differences between North/South distinctions. All I know is that the large cemetery in the city where I was born has always been well tendered and real flowers are brought to the grave site. It is quite frequent that the cemetery here in the South is in great need of mowing and general cleaning up. Only artificial flowers are allowed.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you Dr Fleming. Death is one of the remaining truths of our existence and yet it’s strange how even death has been ignored or faked as far as possible as if simply a footnote to the living. I can’t hardly read about this subject without thinking of Waugh’s novel about California and the funeral business —-The Loved One.