The fact of our mortality is something we don’t like and tend to avoid. The face of death is one that drives our inner gaze away to livelier subjects should we happen to glance at it with our mind’s eye at odd moments, perhaps during the deep quietness of the 3am sleep-slipped nowhere time. But death, loss, and grief are all too insistent a part of life, despite our most fervent desire that it should be otherwise. How we face this inevitability, and the means for doing so, is the subject of this collection of philosophical essays by a range of scholars and thinkers. As always with a collection of this kind, there are some that succeed more than others, but the parts just about cohere into a whole that considers the meaning of mourning: what it is, how we perceive and practice it, and where it leaves us in the absence of the one who is gone, all of which help prepare us, even if only in a small way, for the day when the grey rain curtain of the world pulls away, and we step onto the new path.
Setting the Scene and Defining Terms
The collection spans fifteen essays from various disciplines and perspectives. The editor, Slawkoski-Rode, writes in the introduction that “while the collection is not designed to serve as a comprehensive study or companion, it assumes a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to the theme of mourning that combines philosophy, theology, psychology, medical science, and the arts.” The Introduction notes the universality but also the religious, cultural, and ethnic particularity of mourning and defines mourning briefly as “the public display of grief caused by the loss of a loved one.” As the introduction notes, the following chapters “invoke … the idea of mourning in a broad sense, which goes beyond” this definition.
Several of the chapters defined the matter of mourning in a more specific way. One is found in the chapter “Mourning: A Phenomenology,” where “Mourning, to put it simply, is the intentional structure of the extreme loss, especially death, while death is the material core of this intentional structure.” Another chapter, “Meaning and the Recognition of Value,” defines “grief as a kind of strong negative emotional response to loss, and mourning as a somewhat wider concept encompassing grief as well as patterns of behavior that manifest or are influenced by such grief.”
Mourning thus articulates and gives shape to the inchoate, roiling sea of grief that roars through the hearts of those in its grasp. Mourning, properly understood and practiced, is a beacon signalling the way to the dry land of gradual acceptance and closure, reconciliation with oneself for having outlived the lost and with the lost for having left us behind. The book is structured thematically, with the first six chapters philosophical in orientation. To begin, four chapters “that consider the metaphysics of death and the theology of loss, including expressions of these ideas in ritual form and their implications for concrete experiences, like reproductive loss,” followed by “two chapters which analyze the relationship between mourning and the recognition of value, and the role hope plays in the experience of loss.”
In a more personal psychological vein, the following four chapters “explore … themes in the psychology of loss and the psychological roots of grief in early childhood, psychological vulnerability to loss in later life when opportunities for rebuilding meaning are diminished, and the interpersonal phenomenology of loss.” The book then moves to the realm of political philosophy, “to a set of issues connected with public and cultural aspects of mourning . . . Community mourning and the need for public commemoration is considered, and how these may become complicated by cultural or historical factors. Differing attitudes to the loss of an idea are contrasted, and how mourning can be expressed in the rethinking of intellectual heritage of a culture.” The book draws to a close with a reflection by the sculptor Alexander Stoddart on “the cultural role of sepulchral art,” and ends with Alexander Tallis meditating on the need to live with loss.
Overall, this book proved of significant value to me personally, of which more below. But it is not without flaws. This is an academic book, so we are therefore subject to the sadly expected dry, dense prose of academic writing in a number of the chapters. It seemed to me that the essays could be divided between those philosophers either unconnected to, or retired from, the academic life, and those still working within its halls, a divide delineated by the fluency or otherwise of style, and eloquence or otherwise of expression.
Those who wrote from this more formally academic position therefore laced their writing with the buzzwords necessary to stand up before their peers and the forces of publish-or-perish. Not everyone can approach the eloquence of an Anthony O’Hear or a Roger Scruton, but some of the chapters were so technical in subject matter and impenetrable in style that what could otherwise have been an intriguing approach to the subject of mourning was rendered illegible.
As one example, Amber L. Griffioen’s chapter, “Toward a Philosophical Theology of Pregnancy Loss,” considers a truly heartrending tragedy faced by many women, when “40 percent of all pregnancies do not result in a live birth.” Yet the use of Critical Theory and Gender Studies jargon acted as a barrier to a deeper understanding and appreciation of such a tragic part of the female experience: The repeated references to “neoliberal capitalism,” and “patriarchy,” calls to be “inclusive of all persons capable of gestating a human being inside them,” the ever present need to engage in different “discourses,” and finally the construction of a gestational model of God, God as potential birthing mother. Given the number of women who go through such a harrowing episode, and the ripple effects of grief and loss through those around them, this chapter represented a sadly missed opportunity because as Griffioen writes, there is a gap in the philosophy of loss and mourning for the life that ends before it begins.
Two other chapters that were less than successful for this reader were the aforementioned “Mourning: A Phenomenology,” by Balázs M. Mezei, and Mourning and the Second-Person Perspective, by the editor of the volume Mikołaj Sławkowski-Rode. It must be noted immediately that the main issue here is that I am not a trained philosopher, and I am especially not a phenomenologist. Both authors refrained from employing an opaque style of composition, but the expression and specific terms and phrases central to a field like phenomenology meant that I struggled to make head or tail of these essays.
This is, again, a shame because the question at hand, of death and how we encounter it, is such an endlessly urgent subject that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the opacity of these chapters. On the other hand, the fact that it was a struggle to grasp these chapters’ meaning at least shows they were nevertheless compelling enough to demand such an effort. The essay on “Grieving and Mourning: The Psychology of Bereavement,” by Colin Murray Parkes was much less compelling, bogged down in a scientism that failed to approach the matter at hand in a way that had an impact. This could not be said for the remaining chapters, all of which spoke powerfully, at least in some way, to the matter at hand.
Tending the Graves of the Lost and the Graves Within our Hearts
As Cathy Mason and Matt Dougherty argue in Chapter Six, for us to grieve and mourn means that there must be something of close to inestimable value that has been lost. This in turn reveals the fact that we as God’s creation find the value inherent to life, recognising its intrinsic nature. Mourning and grief may signal something of depthless sadness, but they also point to the fact that even in this darkness, the light of something to value is there, as the act of mourning and the feelings of grief testify to this. There is then the guilt felt when these all-consuming feelings recede after a time, as they do for most of us. This might suggest a less-than-wholesome sentimentality, an artifact of our neural biology feeding us different hormones at the loss of a loved one, undermining the claim of the sincerity of our attachment to those who have been detached from us.
But as the authors write, moving forward can itself be defended as a form of correctly valuing something. After all, in the Jewish tradition, one mourns the loss of a loved one for a year, but then one is expected to re-enter the land of the living, to say yes to life. Remaining forever in the shadow of the valley of death is a wrong, to oneself and to the one no longer here. Indeed the authors argue that moving on with life may be a sign of having given proportionate honour, respect, and love to the lost. If one is in a state of grief-stricken solitude ever after the loss, does that really point to an appropriate response?
If, as the authors write, “virtue, on a common conception, involves both acting well and having appropriate affective responses. For our purposes, the latter is the relevant aspect of virtue” one might suggest that this constitutes a devaluing of the mourning process, and therefore of grief at the losing of a loved one, and even a devaluing of love itself. Surely the one who is here no more would themselves be grieved if those left behind were reduced to some living death of bare existence, rather than moving forward through the rest of the life they have? As the authors conclude: “In the act of mourning, we mourn something or somebody lost, yet we connect this loss to the renewal already heralded in the act of mourning. Mourning is the gateway between decay and renewal, degeneration and generation. As opposed to melancholy, mourning uncovers the way to self-renovation, either at the individual or the communal level, and so it stops the ‘whirlpool,’ the self-destructive power of depression.”
To avoid being drawn into the trap of melancholia, grief and loss must be given shape and a context within which one can express such deep and powerful emotions. Religion has traditionally been the main form and means by which we have done this. In light of this, “What Can the Roman Catholic Liturgies of the Dead Offer Mourners: Solidarity with the Deceased and Hopeful Protest?” by Richard Conrad OP describes in detail the different forms this Liturgy has taken over the centuries, comparing the Old and New Liturgies and their differences regarding their approaches to death and mourning. Conrad mounts an eloquent defence of the perspective he argues is implicit in the Old Liturgy. For him, this form emphasises death’s unavoidable reality, and the loss-induced pain that accompanies it. In the Old Liturgy, Conrad holds, the different stages of prayer, ceremony, and reflection all provide a way to articulate the mix of sorrow and gratitude that people feel, as well as the anger at the injustice of the death of a loved one, which he sees as justified, a justification rooted in Christian theology.
This chapter’s focus on theology as well as its liturgical expression was both enlightening and consoling in equal measure: enlightening for its explication of a form of worship, remembrance, and mourning that I as an Anglican am not familiar with; consoling, for the depth of its commitment to describing something that fulfils Jesus’ proclamation that he lays no burden on us that we cannot bear. The Catholic Liturgy of the Dead guides the mourner through the vale of tears into which we plunge at the death of those closest to us, illuminating the path with the lamplights of faith, thereby illuminating the souls of those left behind with the warmth of Christ’s love. This instils a sense of hope that while death is an evil, for “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living,” it is also not the end of all things, our wretchedness having been saved and our pain salved by the sacrifice of Christ.
As the author writes, Aquinas saw death as both evil and natural, the evil of our life on earth ending in service to the greater, perhaps ultimate good of passing through to God’s Kingdom, uniting with the love that surpasses all understanding. The possibility of a final redemption and salvation is open to all those who repent of the sins and wrongs of their life, inherent to our lives in a world broken by sin, rooted in our fallen nature. The journey through the evil of death to the ultimate good of God’s friendship has been made more glorious by the overcoming of our Fall, more glorious indeed than if we had never fallen and known all the sufferings and wrongs of the world we call home. For Conrad, “In sum, death is a natural necessity but not a good; it is an enemy to be defeated. But it is indirectly willed by God, in a small way as penalty and sobering fact, in a more positive way for solidarity with Christ’s victorious journey through death and as a stage in our liberation to glory. The current Liturgy of the Dead seeks to emphasize how being patterned on Jesus’ Death leads to being patterned on his Resurrection.”
What happens, though, when we cannot come together to mourn through reciprocal acts of belonging? John Cottingham considers this question in Chapter Eight, “Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning,” in which he reflects on the challenges thrown up by the lockdown and social distancing responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He argues that, deprived of the social contact that comprises the texture of a meaningful life, many of us experienced a kind of bereavement that may seem inconsequential when contrasted with those who faced and face actual bereavement. However, this kind of coerced social detachment sundered the links between human subjects, turning us into objects to be avoided for fear of infection and contamination.
To communicate the power of mourning in times of bereavement, Cottingham draws on a wide array of literary and religious references, from poets to the Psalms and the Gospel of Luke. These literary forms give structure and substance to one’s grief and sorrow as the Liturgies do, but in a broader way, reflecting the synthesis of the universal with the particular which comprises the ground of life. One quote that struck home for me was Dante’s, when one of his characters states that there is “No greater grief / Than to remember happiness gone by / In time of sorrow,” a line that explains why remembering times of joy in times of sadness increases the sorrow as much as the gladness of remembering such a time. Even so, sometimes grief can draw you into yourself, away from such memories where, as John Keats wrote, the muffled bells of mourning “tolls me back to my sole self.” This inward turn can mean that the outward world seems to mock us with its contrast, leaving us, in the words of J.H. Housman,“I, a stranger, and afraid, in a world I never made.”
These sentiments, expressed in poetry, are also given voice in the prose of Eleonore Stump’s chapter, “The Problem of Mourning.” Stump makes the point that mourning and grief at the supposed evil of death seem a strange reaction to someone’s passing over when traditional Christian theodicy holds that all parts of our lives, good or ill, are redeemed by the unification with God. Stump also makes the point that it is strange that the Creator should not Himself be in mourning at the fallenness of His creation, i.e. our sinful nature and the distance between our current state and the one into which we entered with God’s breath of Life still felt on our faces. In light of the Fall, Stump asks, “Why is there not something sad at best or devastating at worst about the lives of human persons in the post-Fall world, even if those persons are redeemed and restored in the end?”
Over the rest of the chapter she considers this question, wrestling with “the felix culpa view, which supposes not that the story of God’s creation with the Fall and its subsequent suffering is a disappointment for God but that, on the contrary, the world with its history of sin and suffering is better and more glorious than the world would have been if there had been no Fall.” This is the view held and defended in the chapter on the Liturgies for the Dead. Stump quotes the apostle Paul, who writes in Romans that “his true self is characterized by the higher-order will for the good. That is why Paul repudiates as alien to himself—alien to his true self—his own first-order volitions that are discordant with that second-order will.” As a result, “even in his internally fragmented state, the self that wants to will what is good is his true self.” Stump then questions what comprises the “true self” in light of “the wounds and scars of post-Fall human life.” Are these examples of the suffering that is part of life and so in fact crucial to our perfection through redemption in Christ?
This chapter thus proved particularly relevant for me, as it reflects something that I have also wrestled with, having been born with a genetic fragile skin condition that brings physical and emotional suffering in its wake, and which will ultimately prove fatal. As Stump argues, the suffering I experience is not reducible to these forms, however. It is also a result of what we as dependant, rational animals care about, which itself suggests a value hierarchy upon which we base our view of what and who, does and does not matter. This is as true for me as any able-bodied person, and perhaps more so, with my condition heightening and concentrating the experience of the human condition in all its triumph and tragedy.
As Stump writes, “Every human person has some care about what kind of person she is and about her being what she ought to be, where what she ought to be is something like thriving as a good specimen of the species human being. Consequently, part of what it is for a human being to suffer is for her to be kept, to one degree or another, from thriving, in this broad sense. What makes a human person thrive, however, is an objective matter.” At the same time, “what human beings care about has a subjective element too, which does not have to do just with thriving.”
In sum, “if we take suffering to be a function of what a person cares about, then suffering can be understood this way: a human being suffers when she fails to thrive, or she fails to have the desires of her heart, or both.” Out of this, we can say that “If in heaven a human being is her true self in its perfected state, and if in heaven she does not suffer, then in heaven she has, harmoniously ordered, both thriving and heart’s desires. She has the convergence of what she cares about on both an objective and a subjective scale of value.” Therefore, “the perfected version of a person’s true self, the condition of a person in the afterlife in heaven, is what she is when what she most cares about, in both an objective and a subjective sense, converge in her and in her life. … On Christian doctrine, human beings are made in the image of God. The perfection of a human person’s true self will thus also be the fulfillment of that image in her.”
The doctrine of the Trinity holds that God through Christ suffers with us and as we do, taking the sin and suffering of the world on his shoulders, which means that “the nature of God is most evident in Christ’s crucifixion because love is greatest and most evident there.” Therefore, “If it is the image of God in human beings that perfects the true self of a human being, and if the nature of the love that is God is most evident in the crucified Christ, then there may be some way in which the wounds of human suffering could intensify the image of God in a human being too.” It is because of this that “It may be possible to see a way in which the wounds of a person’s suffering could become for that person an image of Christ. On this way of thinking about the perfection of the true self of a human person, what makes a human person glorious and perfected is her resemblance to the incarnate Christ when the love of God is most manifest in him.”
Bringing the chapter to a close, Stump presages and defends the felix culpa view of suffering and loss seen in Conrad’s defence of the Catholic Liturgy of the Dead by arguing that
If the love that is God’s nature is most evident in the wounds of the incarnate Christ and if the wounds of human suffering could be suitably connected to Christ, then there is a basis for an argument that the wounds of a post-Fall human being can render him more in the image of God than he would have been had there been no suffering in the world. In that case, on Christian doctrine there would be something more glorious about redeemed human beings with wounds than there would have been had there been no Fall, no suffering, and no wounds and scars. On this view, it is the image of love incarnate that makes a wounded post-Fall human person more glorious in his true self than he would otherwise have been, and the image of love incarnate in the true self of a human person would have been less in a world without a Fall.
Again, this is something that I have reconciled with over my own life, as I’ve come to accept the final limit of mortality, one that we all share as the limited beings we are, but which I am subject to as I am to life’s sorrows, in a heightened and concentrated form. The cancer that will ultimately set me on the journey from this world brought me face to face with the death that we must all come to terms with. Some cannot do so, and ceaselessly seek a way to avoid stepping onto the road of our final journey. Most know that this is our fate, but understandably do not wish to think on it too deeply.
And yet, having accepted and reconciled with my finitude and the fact of my life’s end does not preclude sadness or a sense of regret. It is in this vein that Cottingham quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and Fall,” where the young girl Margaret weeps over the fall of Autumn’s golden glory:
Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving? Leaves like the things of man, you With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? Ah! as the heart grows older It will come to such sights colder By and by, nor spare a sigh Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; And yet you will weep and know why. Now no matter, child, the name: Sorrow’s springs are the same. Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed What heart heard of, ghost guessed: It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.
Here Hopkins demonstrates the unique ability of art and literature to bring together the universality of the good, true, and beautiful, of morality itself, with the concrete experience of our own lives through which these moral ideals are made real and therefore attainable and comprehensible. The experience of seeing a striking winter’s day, the glitter of frost caught in the sun’s embrace, is as meaningful as the soft, sad beauty of the autumn, when we are reminded that our time here is short, but that it still has inestimable value for the fact of our being here to witness the glory and tragedy of God’s creation, the knowledge of our passing away intensifying the joy by edging it with sorrow. As Cottingham writes, each of us can feel the griefs of life during the succeeding stages of our lives, and no age or stage has a monopoly on such a thing. Is my grief or sense of mourning any greater or more righteous that someone older or younger? Of course not. What binds us across time and across the space between us in the here and now is the shared particularity of our sorrow, and the hope that there is a redemption to it in our lives and after we’re gone. We all, as Thomas Hardy writes in “At Castle Boterel,” see our lives and the loves we have known, we
look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking, I look back at it amid the rain For the very last time; for my sand is sinking, And I shall traverse old love’s domain Never again.
As Gandalf says near the end of The Return of the King, “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.” This approach is echoed in the last two chapters considered here, by Anthony O’Hear and Roger Scruton. As O’Hear writes in “Mourning and Memory, Private and Public Dimensions,” “Christ, who had not foresworn this life … was moved by the tears of Mary to summon Lazarus from the grave (John 11:33).” Citing C.S. Lewis in his masterpiece, A Grief Observed, O’Hear reminds us that to leave our grief in its most private space, within our hearts, is to leave it to tear out what makes one alive from the inside, to leave one hollow and on the edge of despair. This kind of private grief is ultimately selfish, and it precludes the coming to terms in community that is the only way we can reconcile with the new world as interdependent individuals. O’Hear also references Aristotle’s call togive appropriate honour to the departed, to treat the body with awe for its constitutive part of life, but not to put the lifeless body in place of the living person.
Rituals and ceremonies of memorialisation and commemoration enable the rightly ordered expression of grief and mourning that binds up the hearts of those afflicted, through the binding together of those from whom the dead have departed. O’Hear gives a moving example of the potential for such a beneficial result when he describes the ceremonies of mourning and memorialisation undertaken in Ireland to remember those who died during the violence of the Troubles. Of course these could not totally heal or undo what had been done by either side; the world had still been rent and torn by the violence. But it at least brought people to reflect on the hope still intrinsic to life, the possibility of forgiveness, and the way forward to a future oriented to human flourishing, even in light of our fallen, flawed natures. If we become wrapped up in our private grief, not only do we neglect those around us now but also the past with its memories of those who went before and the future with those who will come after. We therefore build a tyranny of our grief, silencing and depersonalising those who do not share our inner, consuming turmoil. As such, these acts of remembrance and reconciliation not only serve to reweave the frayed ties that bind between people now but also across the years, restoring the cords of memory that bind the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, giving them back their voice in the democracy of the dead and the unborn.
Scruton’s chapter complements O’Hear’s arguments through an examination of an example of mourning made complicated by a terrible history and cultural suicide. Scruton reflects on the seeming impossibility of mourning for a destroyed culture, an impossibility that has come to define the German experience due to the recruitment, often willingly accepted, and subsequent exploitation of this nation’s undoubtedly great cultural heritage by the Nazi death cult. Scruton argues that such a culture of repudiation—one which refuses and discards those values which many Germans feel in their hearts have been tainted beyond purification by such use as the Nazis put them to—creates a conflict deep within the national soul. This deliberate discarding, repudiation, and ultimate suppression of the past denies the duty of piety we have towards those who came before.
This purposeful rejection of the past as such is not only confined to the German context, although given the horrors unleashed, it is certainly a special case. This denial of an obligation towards the dead is common across the Western world, constituting what Pascal Bruckner calls a “tyranny of guilt” that has risen to power in our cultures. This emphasises only the terrible things our ancestors did and ignores the noble things they also achieved. The result of the refusal of this obligation of piety, maintaining the threads that bind the past, present, and future into the tapestry of our culture across time, means that our role in remembrance remains unfulfilled. As Scruton closes by arguing, this makes it impossible to reconcile with the past, accept the loss that is our lot, and move forward having laid the dead to rest in one’s own heart. Without tending the graves of the dead, we leave the graves in our own hearts uncared for, scarring our souls as a result.
This collection of essays was not always successful in its aim to encourage reflection on the meaning of mourning. Its flaws demonstrate some of the problems with academia today, whereby employment of complex theoretical terms and language overrides clarity of communication and eloquence of expression. However, for the most part the collection succeeded in making me reflect on the reality of loss and the grief that precedes it and results from it. The need to reconcile with one’s finitude and live as good a life in light of this was made clear by many of the more successful essays and tallied with my own experience of coming to terms with the limits on my life from my condition, both in an everyday and an ultimate sense.
However, this reconciliation and acceptance can only be achieved in community with others, when one’s life feels knitted into a greater whole, our existence part of the greater life of the social ecology. This applies not only to the present, but also to remembering the past and anticipating the future. This has been something that those like O’Hear and Scruton have taught me, and the other essays in this collection that resonated layered atop these contributions, adding to the sediment of meaning that accrues over a life lived in a world that is a home from which we journey to our final rest, where our hearts finally know peace.
Image Credit: Georges Michel, “Landscape with Mill” via Flickr