We Owe the Dead Because We Care for the Living

Funeral of GrisóstomoI was having a conversation with Ramona Grigg recently. You probably know her from one of her blogs Ramona’s Voice and Constant Commoner. Anyway, we were discussing the new book that Harper Lee is publishing. I became substantially less excited when I found out that it wasn’t something new, but rather a novel she had written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Generally, reading that sort of thing is disappointing — just a historical curiosity. But maybe not. We’ll see. Regardless, this led to a discussion of author’s intend.

Grigg mentioned that she had checked out a book of Willa Cather’s short stories, and discovered in the introduction that the author had explicitly said she didn’t want the included stories published. But here they were. Grigg was horrified by this and so didn’t read the book. That shows an admirable level of ethics. After all, Cather is long dead. But it got me thinking about the issue. And fundamentally, I don’t think it is a matter of Cather or any other dead person. But I do think that it is really important to respect the dead — because of the living.

In chapter 13 of the first volume of Don Quixote, this issue is discussed at the funeral of Grisóstomo. He is, from my vantage point in life, a supremely silly young man who killed himself because a young woman he loved, Marcela, didn’t love him back. But before he died, he asked that all his writing be burned with his body. As a result, his friend Ambrosio was set to do just that. But an outsider, Vivaldo, bristled at this idea. And he presented a fairly compelling argument for not following Grisóstomo’s wishes:

You would treat them even more harshly and cruelly than would their owner himself, for it is neither reasonable nor right to obey the wishes of someone who commands you to do that which goes beyond all reason. Who would have thought it right had Augustus Caesar consented to the divine Virgil’s dying wish, and allowed the Aeneid to perish? Accordingly, Señor Ambrosio, consign the body of your friend to the earth, but do not consign his writings to oblivion, what he ordered because he had been wronged, you ought not to execute out of imprudence. Rather, by preserving the life of those documents, which bear eternal witness to Marcela’s cruelty, let them serve as an example to those who live in future times, to shun and flee from such dangers.

Ambrosio won’t budge on this, because he was Grisóstomo’s friend. So Vivaldo grabs some of the papers and Ambrosio allows him to keep and read them, but will not allow more. It is all a set up for Cervantes to insert a rather long poem into the text. Cervantes always considered himself a poet above all else. But no one takes him seriously on this score — including me. Even in Spanish, they seem mediocre to me. In translation, they are usually dreck.

But this argument between Ambrosio and Vivaldo leaves out what I think is the most compelling of arguments in favor of honoring Grisóstomo’s request: the way it affects the feelings of the living about how they will be treated in death. Whether one believes in an after life or not, it can’t be that the dead care about how we treat them. Consider the ending of the Iliad. After killing Hector, Achilles drags his body around from his horse. That greatly distressed Hector’s father, King Priam. But it clearly didn’t distress Hector at that time. The idea of it, however, did greatly distress Hector while he was alive.

That is why I think honoring the wishes of the dead matters. And I suppose that puts me down on the baby side of the “save a baby or the last copy of Shakespeare’s complete works” question. It would be sad if we didn’t have the Aeneid. But I’m afraid that life is for the living. And that is why we honor the dead.


For this article, I used Burton Raffel’s excellent translation of Don Quijote.

2 thoughts on “We Owe the Dead Because We Care for the Living

  1. I believe Orwell specifically requested that there be no biographies written about him, as he felt he shared enough in his work. And of course people wrote biographies about him. I don’t blame anyone for reading them, or for reading stories Cather didn’t want published. Admirers who want more of the authors they enjoy, that’s flattery. But the people who write and publish these things? That’s a bit dicier.

    I suppose there are limits. If Hitler’s youthful diary were discovered and it said on the top of every page, “no-one should ever read this!” it should still be published, that’s valuable historical information. And I dislike the trend of pop filmmakers insisting that earlier, non-revised editions of their work be removed from circulation. Nobody put a gun to your head and made you put it out the first time.

    I think in one of Howard Zinn’s books he talks about an African tradition of putting the dead into two categories; the dead who living people remember, and the long-dead. Both are respected but in different ways. I like that sentiment; it’s the point of graveyards. When I was a kid our history teacher took us to a old graveyard and had us do “tombstone rubbings,” where we put a piece of paper on a tombstone and rubbed crayon on the paper to copy the information. Then we had to imagine that person’s life and write about it. Our teacher was careful to specify that the death date had to be over 100 years ago, so we didn’t offend anyone living who had family members buried there. That’s about right in respecting the near-dead and long-dead both.

    Here’s my favorite graveyard sight. I visited Fort Rock, OR, which has an ancient tuff ring. There used to be a gas station and a few dilapidated buildings nearby; I guess most are gone, now, American dreamers who lost, the only kind I like. There’s a pioneer graveyard. Most tombstones in it aren’t even tombstones. They’re metal bent into a “U” and stamped with a name before being hammered into the dirt, about the size of leg irons. When I visited, somebody had left an unopened can of malt liquor by one of these gravesites, of someone who died around 1910. Made me a bit weepy.

    • I don’t think requesting that people not write biographies is a proper request. That’s quite distinct from, “Don’t publish my crap that I didn’t want published.” That wouldn’t be much different from Homer requesting that none of his work being translated. It just isn’t his business.

      I don’t see why people would be offended by kids taking prints of their loved ones’ tombstones. It is an honorific act. But I understand that many people would be offended.

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