The importance of mourning rituals to the dead

By Luís Cordeiro-Rodrigues.

In Sophocles’ play Antigone, Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, decides that, as a punishment for Polynices’s rebellion, Polynices will not receive a proper funeral but will instead lie unburied on the battlefield to be eaten by animals. Antigone, one of Polynices’s sisters, defies Creon’s orders and gives her brother a funeral ritual. For Antigone, not performing funeral rites for her brother was a highly immoral act that would be so unbearable to not carry out that she actually does so at the cost of her own life. Most of us share Antigone’s feeling that there is something morally wrong about not properly performing mourning rituals for the dead.

During the current pandemic, many people have felt that they could not mourn their significant others properly because many funerals have been prohibited or postponed. The goal of this post is not to challenge governmental policies regarding funerals; they are reasonably justified as a lesser evil policy to avoid the spread of infection. Instead, I wish to offer an explanation as to why not properly carrying out mourning rituals for the dead is a moral wrong – a question that haunts many of us who are unable to perform funeral rituals during these pandemic times. The argument I wish to forward depends on making the case for owing something to the dead; hence, after showing that dominant moral theories fail to adequately explain why we owe something to the dead, I offer an alternative theory and tease out the implications for the morality of mourning rituals.

Neither the Kantian nor utilitarian perspective can plausibly explain why we owe anything to the dead. From a Kantian perspective, rationality is the basis for moral status and rational beings should always be treated as ends-in-themselves, and never merely as means. It is unclear, however, if the dead retain the status of ends-in-themselves. Immanuel Kant’s answer is that we ought to treat the dead as ends-in-themselves because we can have ‘relations with disembodied souls’. Hence, Kant’s argument lies in the idea that the death of the body is not the ultimate death, an eccentric metaphysical claim that is difficult to prove. Furthermore, attributing moral value to a corpse seems incompatible with the Kantian idea that moral value emanates from the capability to be autonomous, something a corpse surely lacks.

From a utilitarian perspective, paying tribute to the dead can be justified because of the utility it gives to the living; hence, the moral wrongness of disrespecting the dead lies in the disutility that this disrespect may cause to significant others. For example, when Neo-Nazis vandalize Jewish cemeteries, some utilitarians contend this is morally wrong mainly because it causes suffering to significant others. Nevertheless, there seems to be something morally wrong about Neo-Nazis vandalizing Jewish cemeteries, even if these dead Jewish people have no significant others to care about their tombs being vandalized.

I wish to suggest that a better explanation for why we owe mourning rituals to the dead lies on a relational moral theory. According to this theory, the highest good consists of positively relating to others. To positively relate means to act in ways that honour good-will and identification with others. To act with good-will entails acting and feeling in ways that honour the well-being, goals and excellence of other individuals. To identify with others means to act and perceive them as entities with whom we have communality, share goals and are a continuation of our own selves. Hence, one ought to act in ways that honour good-will and identification with others.

This theory also implies that moral status is determined by the capacity to perform such actions. Particularly, the level of the capacity to engage in communal relationships is what determines the moral status of entities. This groundwork divides entities into three kinds: those with full moral status, those with partial moral status and those with no moral status. Entities with full moral status are those with the capacity to be a subject and an object of a communal relationship: they can identify with others, act in good-will towards others and others can do the same towards them. Entities with partial moral status are those who cannot be the subject but can be the object of communal relationships. That is, others can identify, empathize and act in good-will towards them, but they cannot do the same (e.g., human corpses). Those entities with no moral status are the ones that cannot commune or be communed with, rather, they are like a stone.

How does this perspective explain the importance of properly mourning the dead? In virtue of having a partial moral status, the living have some positive and negative duties towards the dead. Positively, one ought to treat the dead with good-will and identification. This means, at a minimum, as an act of good-will and identification, performing a ritual the person would reasonably expect to receive when deceased (unless this places a high burden on the living). When mourning the dead, we are performing acts of good-will to the extent that we are helping to fulfill the goals they once had. We are also performing an act of identification because we are not creating distance, but closure, finding ways to connect with significant others who are no longer alive. In terms of negative duties, the theory implies that, as an act of good-will and identification, we ought not to use their body in ways they would not accept. For example, carrying out funeral rituals in a way that a person would disapprove of (e.g., a Satanic funeral for a Catholic) as this would be an act of bad-will to the extent that it disrespects the goals the dead person once had.

This theory coheres with various widely shared ideas. Firstly, it matches the intuitions whereby the dead have moral value; this is an intuition widely shared as in most cultures there are mourning rituals and we feel it is disrespectful to violate them. Secondly, it matches the intuition whereby disrespecting corpses is not simply about the moral wrong committed to the families of the dead. Thirdly, it matches our intuitions whereby although human corpses do not feel pain, there is something wrong about eating them, profaning their bodies or having sex with them. Finally, the argument is general enough to not prescribe a specific mourning ritual, but at the same time to recognize the moral relevance of mourning rituals. This makes the argument attractive because it simultaneously recognizes the moral value of rituals and respects freedom of expression and conscience.

Acknowledgments: To the memory of Otília Banza and Manuel Cordeiro.
This research has been funded by Hunan University’s Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, fund number 531118010426. 本文受湖南大学“中央高校基本科研业务费”专项资金资助 (531118010426).

Author: Luís Cordeiro-Rodrigues

Affiliation: Department of Philosophy, Yuelu Academy, Hunan University

Conflicting interests: None declared.

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