Why do we respect the dead more than the living?

Philosopher's reply

One of the very few things that is common to all humans is that every human life ends in death. Yet most of us ‘do’ our everyday lives without seeming to be consciously aware of this universal inevitability.

Our first reaction to death is often shock: we are lifted clean out of habitual, mundane, everyday time into a shocking awareness that human life is finite. Sometimes we can get stuck in this shock and cannot assimilate a particular death: ‘time lived, without its flow’ as the philosopher/poet Denise Riley puts it.

In confronting death we often recognise that we waste so much of our time in pursuit of the busy accumulation of things, experience, status or relationships, none of which can withstand the inevitability of death. Perhaps we respect the dead because they are totems that remind us to renew ourselves in the time we have left to us; to orientate ourselves to values that have deep meaning for us, and to cherish the living and this unsettling, curious thing we call life.

When people are dead and the narrative of their life is over we can finally stop finding fault with their failing and appreciate their virtues: this evaluation can come not merely with gratitude but sometimes with regrets about our attitude and behaviour towards the deceased and, indeed, the still living. The dead help us realise that discriminations we make between different kinds of humans are at best petty (if not also resulting in misguided or cruel judgments). The dead can bring us to feel the tender affinity of compassion when we consider how we are all universally vulnerable not just to our own death but to being grief-struck in the inevitable passing of those we love.

Thank you for your thoughtful question Katherine.ODonnell@UCD.ic

Philosopher's profile

Katherine O'Donnell

UCD School of Philosophy, Ireland

When so many of Iris Murdoch's contemporaries were all about finding an existential authentic identity, this philosopher was writing entirely against that grain and connected liberation, not with the quest for an authentic identity , but demonstrated how liberation might manifest in the happiness that can arise when that quest, which is so often fuelled by craving, fear and delusion, can be relaxed.

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