The cult of the dead has such a significant place in the ensemble of discoveries related to the past of our species that we are tempted to see in it an essential characteristic of the human being, to define mankind as an animal that honours its dead. This cult has been the subject of a large number of studies, of which we find a faithful echo in the material included on the l’Agora website that looks at death. Here, I will profile two heroic figures who illustrate the two poles between which attitudes toward death and suffering have moved: Sophocles’ Antigone (c. 2500 BCE) and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), founder of the modern profession of nursing. Αntigone is, of course, a character in a play, but everyone would agree that there were real Antigones in the Greek world. Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, definitely lived. Why do I compare them? Because each demonstrated the highest degree of compassion for soldiers; in addition, religious motives were of the greatest importance to each woman.
Between the one and the other, however, lies a revolution: the first sacrificed her life for a dead man, her brother Polyneices; the second devoted herself to caring for dying British soldiers in a hospital in Scutari during the Crimean War. In according burial honours to her brother, Antigone opposed the will of the King, Creon, and risked her own life. Between Antigone and Florence Nightingale, we pass from the cult of the dead to care for the dying. I am not arguing that Antigone would not have preferred to care for her brother so as to heal him; nor am I saying that Florence Nightingale was indifferent to the care demanded by the dead. In her native country, the loveliest pieces of ground were chosen for cemeteries. What I am saying is that the story of Antigone illustrates a world where the accent was placed on the cult of the dead, whereas that of Florence Nightingale illustrates a world where the accent was placed on care for the dying. And, I would add, the dead have continued, since her time, to become less important than the dying. Of course, there still are cemeteries and, in the case of soldiers in particular, we see their coffins when they are brought home from the Front. We also continue to publish obituary notices about the dead in newspapers. Nevertheless, the retreat from death continues.
At the hospital in Scutari, soldiers could die with dignity, dignity in this case being something inside themselves, but they could not die in dignity, that is to say in physical conditions that included a minimum of hygiene, pure air, clean sheets, and proper bandages. Florence Nightingale’s contribution was to create such conditions and, in so doing, she succeeded on both the moral and the physical planes, for by virtue only of the improvements for which she fought, the survival rate of soldiers was raised almost to its current levels.
After Florence Nightingale, the movement intensified; the cult of death continued to diminish. Previously, if the soul was distinguished from the body and, if, as in Christian teaching, one believed that the soul was destined for the immortality accorded pure spirits, one continued nonetheless to watch over the condition of the body here below in the context of time and space, as if the soul retained the material reality of the breath to which it had been assimilated. The funeral monument, the tomb on which flowers were placed, the relics that were venerated, the masses said for the welfare of the deceased – all were ways of helping him become embodied anew, after the dis-incarnation of death, and thus to avoid the greatest misfortune of all—wandering restlessly across infinite space. This soul was revived first in the souls of his relatives who were faithful to him, and through them this soul enriched the life of the community. In the most ancient of cultures, it was believed that the souls of the dead took refuge in the stars.
In Rome, this close connection between the living and the dead was marked by the place occupied by the “manes” – the souls of dead loved ones – in the centre of each house; in Christianity, by the burial of the dead near churches and, sometimes, in the case of important persons, inside churches. The dead could thus participate in the prayers of the living. Having emotional connections with their dead, people were right to hope that they would be similarly cared for after their own deaths.
These realities are still so close to us that they are familiar even to a rational thinker like the French philosopher known as Alain. “So, it is sensible to ask what the dead want. And to look carefully, to listen carefully: the dead want to live; they want to live in you. They want your life to be enriched by the things for which they wished. Thus the tombs return us to life. Thus do our thoughts leap joyously beyond the coming winter toward next spring and even to the first leaves. Yesterday, I saw a stalk of lilac whose leaves were beginning to fall, and in it I saw a bud. (2)
Ludwig Klages, a contemporary of Alain’s, but one closer to German romanticism than to rationalism, evokes a distant past where “the living presence that man claims for the soul of the dead emerges, moment to moment, from a basic, erotic connection between the dead and those who are alive. The soul of the dead one dies when it is extinguished in the souls of those who commemorate it.” (3) And to this we would add that the soul of the living one dies in its turn when it ceases to love that of the dead.
For the red clay has swallowed the white kind;
Into the flowers that gift of life has passed.
Where are the dead? – their homely turns of speech,
The personal grace, the soul informing each? (4)
These are the words of poet Paul Valéry, still closer in time to us. In his verse, he draws connections between and among ancient cultures, including those of many Amerindian nations. The “gift of life” that he evokes here is another name given to the soul, and as far as we might push the instrumentalization of beings and of objects, we nevertheless still recognize the connection between flowers and death. The fact remains, however, that the dominant tendency of our culture distances us from this symbiosis with nature, which made the flower the symbol of the permanent presence of the disappeared, and that it is the cost of the flowers that we offer to the dead—rather than their symbolic portent—that makes them important in our eyes.
Of all this, only infinitesimal traces remain. Death used to be seen as a metamorphosis. It has become a rupture. May we believe that, before the rupture occurs, the presence of the dead in the community of the living helped them face death and resign themselves to the suffering that preceded it? Must we think that man, remaining subject to God, forbids himself from intervening in the major acts of nature? Whatever the case, since death has come to be seen as a rupture, humans look more and more to the day when they can put an end to their suffering and choose the hour and the form of their deaths. It is unfortunate, however, that this idea, which has seduced a great part of the West, was first applied under the sign of hatred by a totalitarian regime. There, it was a logical connection, for a certain Darwinian tendency was not foreign to the eugenics-euthanasia duo. It reappears today under the sign of compassion and of individual choice, but who can deny that its past still weighs heavily on it?
The Evolution of the Connection with our Elders
Even today, in Vietnamese families established in Canada, the eldest of the family must care for his or her parents until their deaths. This feeling of obligation with respect to the aged, which presupposes a profound respect for them, was and remains the rule in a number of cultures.
There used to be a similar custom in traditional families in rural Quebec. As the parents approached the age of 60, they effectively gave charge over themselves to the child who would inherit their house and their land. This child became responsible for caring for them, an agreement formalized in a contract witnessed by a notary. Today, relationships between parents and children are lived under the auspices of autonomy. Parents do what they must to ensure that their children become independent as soon as possible, and their children, later on, expect that their parents will likewise remain independent until death. What connections should we look for between this change of mentality and that change we have observed in relation to death? Where death is a wall, is aging a dead end? Whatever our response to this question, the current trend toward independence has a clear connection to the subject under consideration here.