From the editor: May 23, 2014

Dominion of the Dead
The Dominion of the Dead
by Robert Pogue Harrison

Remembering the Dead

In The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

In the 18th century an Italian theorist from Naples, Giambattista Vico, set out to recover the earliest modes of thought of the "Gentile peoples." In his new science (1744) he applied to ancient paths a genetic psychology that let him deep into the forest of prehistory in search of the origins of what he called the three universal institutions of humanity - religion, matrimony, and burial of the dead.

As James Friel of Liverpool John Moores University, in a review essay on Harrison's book, put it: "To be human is, by definition, to be aware of the dead." Which is Robert Pogue Harrison's theme, as Friel summarizes:

Our fidelity to the dead is what makes us human. The dead dwell before, beyond and within us. When we speak, posthumous voices shape our words. The dead anchor us in time and space. They thicken our existence. Where and when we first put them to rest, we ourselves rested; the dominion of the dead is the dominion in which we live.

The human family tree grows and branches out above the ground, but it also grows branches out below the ground. One of my earliest memories is visiting the grave of my grandfather, who died when I was four. Every Memorial Day thereafter, we paid our respects.

Nowadays you might hear someone say of the dead, "That's not really so-and-so. He's now free at last, free of his body." But man is both spirit and flesh. To be human is to feel an additional sense of loss when the mortal remains of a loved one—perhaps killed in battle or a tragic accident—cannot be found, thwarting our need to bury the dead.

Years ago I read a story about a Civil War soldier thought to be buried in a Chicago-area cemetery-the headstone with his name on it dates to 1863. But his descendants had discovered through some detective work that the body in the grave was not that of their ancestor; he was buried in 1863 in a cemetery in Tennessee. It turned out that the person buried just south of Chicago is an unknown soldier. So the local veterans conducted an appropriate ceremony for the placing of a new headstone on the grave, dedicated to the unknown soldier. Even for the dead, human beings seek to sort things out and make them right.

So it was with such noble sentiments that the "myrrh-bearing women" of Holy Scripture came the tomb of Joseph to anoint the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth. Their grief was answered by the victory of the Lord who had gone into mortal combat with death itself. They were going to the grave of a warrior to honor the fallen; but He fell only to raise with Himself all those who had fallen before Him.

We attend to the graves of our loved ones, but lingering in our hearts should be the hope that we will one day know the joy of the myrrh-bearers when they heard, "He is not here; He is risen!" We shall see them again and rejoice, in the fullness of life, which is Christ the Lord.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
—James M. Kushiner


© The Fellowship of St. James. 2014

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