The power of the dead

After my parents died, I made it a point it to visit their graves whenever I had the chance. Instead of mumbling a prayer, I would silently address my thoughts to them. I would bring them news about a wedding in the family, or a new baby, or how my children were doing at school. If any of my siblings was going through a difficult time or had been ill, I would ask for their guidance and prayers on his or her behalf. If I had just returned from an overseas trip, I might tell them where I had been, as though to say I wish they had been there.

I am neither religious nor superstitious, and I don’t believe the dead could communicate. But I think regular communion with the dead is very much an integral part of our culture. I suppose one of the reasons our families are strong is because we don’t easily let go of our dead ancestors. We don’t treat them as dust; we can’t imagine them as bones or as ashes. Long after they have died, they retain a vivid presence in our lives. We wish them to be around to look after us although we don’t necessarily want to see them. We are content to feel traces of them in the objects they left behind, or to catch fleeting glimpses of them in the faces and mannerisms of our siblings and children.

Despite the carnival atmosphere that seems increasingly to envelope our celebrations of All Saints’ Day, there is something that does not change in the way we treat our dead. We continue to accord them the power to affect our lives. We seek their love and fear their wrath. We let them communicate to us through our dreams and our thoughts. We do everything to appease them if we had disappointed them in life. We assure them that we are living our lives in a way that would make them proud. We draw comfort from being able to unburden ourselves in their imagined presence.

But sometimes we also blame them for leaving us with many problems. We resent the vicious role they may have played in the misunderstandings and conflicts that have split the family. When misfortune strikes, we ask if they might know the reason and if they could help. We beg for their forgiveness if we had offended them, or we ask them to intercede for us with the forces of the unknown.

Such practices are typical of ancestor worship, but they are clearly grounded in a notion of life as consisting of the physical body and a spirit/soul that does not perish with the body at the moment of death. Almost all religions have something to say about this dichotomy. Most of them assume the body dies but the spirit lives on. Others say both body and spirit die, but the latter may be restored to life at the right time depending on how well it conducted itself in its lifetime. It is through this concept of spirit that we are able to conceive of eternal life after death. This is why death occupies a central place in every religion.

It has been said that perhaps Christianity offers the best preparation for death. Its cosmology offers a concept of life defined by two forms of time. There is God’s time—eternity. And there is the finite time of human life. Humans have the chance to participate in God’s time through the soul. Death is certain, though we don’t know when and how it will come for each one of us. Neither do we know what will happen to our souls after our death. But religion prescribes a way of living that, with God’s mercy, opens a path to redemption and eternal life.

All this is palpable in the prayers and the rituals for the dead. These forms of communication employ the semantics of salvation—and are meant to ease the soul’s journey to God’s Kingdom. Without the concept of soul, death erases all accountability. The idea of soul or spirit is not exclusive to the religions of the book. Rather, it is found in nearly all religions—“in the form of ancestor worship, in a shadow realm of the dead, in the ‘grand tour’ of reincarnation, or in the form of modern spiritism” (Niklas Luhmann, “A systems theory of religion”).

But, for the agnostic, for whom death is where everything ends, the prayers, rituals, and incantations accompanying the dead would have no meaning. Still, friends and loved ones might wish to celebrate a person’s life and publicly express their grief—without the protocols supplied by religion. It has never been easy to hold such memorials without being confronted by an awkwardness that summons “an awareness of what is missing.” It was in this context that the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once bewailed the modern age’s failure “to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close.”

This failure is, of course, only an aspect of the broader question of modern reason’s inability to clarify its relationship with religion, which, quite obviously has not lost its social significance under modernity. That relationship was supposed to have been adequately defined by secularization. But, hardly anyone makes that claim nowadays, if what is meant is the demise of the religious experience.

Faith has not retreated into the private sphere, as had been predicted. Indeed, outside Europe, there has been a resurgence of public religions. What is becoming the norm in modernity, however, is the view that a religious description of the world is only one of many available descriptions. It neither invalidates the other descriptions nor is it called upon to submit to them.

Indeed, religion may often view secularization as a provocation and respond to it by asserting the primacy of its own definitions. But that’s just the flipside of secular reason’s own inability to make room for religion without violating its own vision.

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