In the 1962 film The Longest Day about the Normandy Landings there is an, for the era, harrowing scene showing the disastrous airborne assault on Sainte-Mère Église. American paratroopers were killed in large numbers by well prepared German defenders. Later in the picture John Wayne, playing a commanding officer, arrives in the village which has become the scene of a fierce firefight. He sees dozens of bodies still attached to their parachute harnesses dangling from trees and buildings. They have not been cut down because the fighting troops had other priorities on their minds. Wayne peremptorily orders that the dead soldiers be immediately got down and decently disposed off.
There are no doubt sound military reasons for this, it would be bad for morale to have the casualties on such undignified display. However, the emotion conveyed by Wayne was something more visceral. The dead heroes merited to be treated with respect and no price was too high to ensure that this was done. Some 2400 years previously a similar idea preoccupied the Greek writer Sophocles when he wrote his tragic play Antigone. The central theme is the determination of the eponymous heroine to give her brother Polyneices a decent burial and the equal determination of the State to deny him such a privilege. Since this was Classical Greece not Hollywood everything ended unhappily with all round weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
That a common theme can be observed across such a big arc of human history suggests that there is something fundamental to our nature as a species contained within it. The desire to show respect and honour to the mortal remains of those whom we love or value is deeply rooted. Since humans are such perverse creatures the opposite also holds, that we wish to disrespect and dishonour the bodies of our enemies and those whom we despise; which is why Polyneices was left to rot in the first place.
Both of these elements can be discerned in one of the stories which has been central to Western civilisation for 2000 years, the crucifixion of Jesus. The central character in this subplot is Joseph of Arimathea described by the Evangelist St John as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38) Yet St Mark can say of him that he “went in boldly to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) That is, the Arimathean was willing to take more risks for Jesus dead than he had been when Jesus was alive. Why was this?
From the point of view of funerary rites a crisis point arrived with the death of Christ on the Cross. The authorities would have disposed of the corpse with the contempt reserved for criminals unless a figure of the stature of Joseph, who had political and financial clout in Jerusalem, came forward to claim it. Faced with the dilemma of, on the one hand, public exposure as a sympathiser of the executed subversive or, on the other, the undignified disposal of a teacher whom he revered the Arimathean opted for the risk of making himself personally vulnerable in order to give respect to the bones of his master.
There was nothing uniquely Jewish or Christian about this response but it is very characteristically human. Given the near universal phenomenon of our attachment to the physical remains of the beloved dead it is worth asking how well the currently dominant Western worldview, secular liberal humanism (SLH), addresses this need. I have some personal experience here as both my parents had humanist funerals although I cannot pretend to have been a calm dispassionate observer in either case.
The format of the ceremony, readings, music, eulogies was strictly derivative of Christian rituals (or at least Protestant ones anyway.) What was different was that the focus was entirely upon the life of the recently deceased and their legacy. Most people were perfectly comfortable with the absence of references to resurrection or eternal life since they didn’t really believe in such things anyway. The approach, then, works well in the intimate setting of a single funeral. Its imitative nature does lead one to think that it is a case of supply meeting demand and that from within its own inherent logic SLH would not have evolved a supply in order to create a demand.
Be that as it may death is not always an exclusively private, individual matter. Societies need to provide for collective grieving over the consequences of war, terrorism or disaster. And, indeed, the remembrance of those of our nation, tribe or clan who have died over the years and whom we come together to recall. SLH is above all an outlook which prioritises individualism which is why it can adapt so easily to cater for the death of a single person but how can it adapt to many deaths?
Traditional approaches look to continuities that link the present of a community to its past, to its future and to eternity. Religious and spiritual beliefs have a certain built in advantage here but nationalisms and messianic ideologies like communism can also provide such linkages in emotionally powerful and satisfying ways. SLH, by contrast, is fairly anaemic in its ability to respond. The only strategies it can offer are to highlight individual stories as being somehow representative and/or stressing the continuity of The Idea over time.
The first approach is weak because no individual is truly representative and anyway SLH will automatically choose figures who are precisely not representative, ethnic minorities, migrants, gays, in order to further their philosophical purposes. However worthy and heroic such figures as Polish Battle of Britain pilots might be the descendants of 20 generations of English yeoman stock will not see them as being authentically representational of the glorious dead 1939-1945.
Advancing the notion that The Idea has been a continuous thread in our particular collective group history is simply not true. Historians tie themselves in knots trying to pretend that figures as diverse as Socrates, Julian of Norwich and Martin Luther were proto liberal democrats. The melange that is SLH is of recent origin and people will not be fooled into thinking that their forebears died on the beaches of Normandy in defence of the policies that lost Hillary Clinton the last US presidential election.
Collective acts of remembrance have to be inclusive in the sense that they include, without judging or condemning, the past as well as the present. Included too must be a hope for the future that all those engaged in grieving and remembering will see the lives of those they have left behind reflected positively in the lives of those yet to come. SLH with its habit of condemning the past in toto (excepting those supposed proto liberal democrats which it mythologises) and its project to socially engineer the future is not in a good position to meet these human needs.
If a worldview cannot find a way of meeting the deepest longings of its John Wayne’s, its Antigone’s and its Joseph’s of Arimathea then its foundations are desperately shallow and it may find that it is not as long for this world as it supposes.
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