We often debate the dead. Fortunately--or unfortunately--the dead never debate us back. They are at our mercy, and there isn't anything short of throwing a few vases that they can do. Yet, we see a distinct grace in death. As soon as they're dead, our perception changes.
We don't talk about them in the same ways we used to; we talk about the light and happy parts of their personality, even if they weren't often those parts. I'm the same way, I've always respected the dead as much as possible, but up until recently I never asked myself "why?".
Today, I ask that for all of us. In Arlington National Cemetery, an Army cemetery, there was a legal battle about what to put on a headstone. The person who died was Wiccan, but the cemetery didn't have that symbol approved, so she got the closest they had instead. The family was outraged naturally, and after the battle, the cemetery now has a system in place to put essentially whatever you want. Whatever religious symbol, however, you want it, while following some guidelines. Now that seems like a happy ending, but yet I still find myself wondering why we appease the dead the way we do.
If we believe there is an afterlife, then that means the person themselves are either in a good, bad, or neutral place. If we believe in reincarnation then they might be a butterfly somewhere. If we believe in nothing then the dead holds no weight. So why then do we respect them? And the thought-provoking question is, why do we respect them more than the living?
It seems respect for death is not only universal but inherent. You see it in almost every culture from the Greeks to the Romans to the Egyptians. Yet still, we allow a culture to permeate that significantly disrespects the living, who by all intents and purposes have more to lose.
Yes, I'm talking about the state of our immigration quarters. Yes, I'm talking about leaving Syria defenseless in the middle East. And yes, I'm talking about the hazing issue one of our very own fraternities is facing. Do we think our ICE members make the sign of the cross as they pass a cemetery? What about our fraternities?
I believe that maybe the reason we respect the dead but hurt the living is that we don't quite understand them. Death is mysterious, but more than anything it is the great equalizer and empathizer. An ICE agent doesn't reasonably believe they'll ever be in this immigrant’s shoes, and he's probably right. The American populace reasonably believes they won't be in a situation like Syria, and they're probably right.
But we all die. Everyone knows they'll be there, everyone knows that death is exact, deliberate, and unwavering. Call it the grim reaper or the horseman or the angel of death, but the result is always the same. So we respect this mysterious plane because in some subconscious way it might get us brownie points in the afterlife, wherever that may be.
I normally ask a question of my readers, to mull over until the next article I write, and that won't change today. Ask yourself the question when you pass by a cemetery; not why you're respecting them, but how can you respect the living? Can you recycle, can you volunteer at a homeless shelter, can you help out a friend?
These are all ways to improve not only your livelihood but the lives of others. To finish this off, I'll give a story about our Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. When he was still teaching law, he had an exercise for his students. He'd ask them all on the first day of class to write their own eulogy. Afterward, he would have them either read it aloud or pick it up, but he noticed something in all of them.
None of them were about money. None of them were about even helping themselves, in fact, every single one was about making a difference. Helping others, helping the living. Love him or hate him, it's a pretty good exercise.
So when passing that cemetery, think of this article. Think of these minor rituals we do to respect them and theorize on why they're important. And lastly, don't wait until they're dead to give them the respect they deserve.