Joseph Bottum is a widely published writer, with essays, reviews, poems, and short stories in publications from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. A #1-bestselling author on Amazon, he has been profiled in the New York Times and many other publications, while appearing on television programs from Meet the Press to the PBS NewsHour and radio from the BBC to NPR.
Bottum holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and lectures across the nation. His essays in scholarly journals extends to essays on literature, ecclesial history, and medieval metaphysics. Meanwhile, his popular writing ranges from obituaries in The Times of London to bestselling sports essays. His lyrics and musical compositions have been performed by singers from Memphis to Carnegie Hall, with recordings by Nashville studio performers released in 2014. Bottum’s print books include the 2011 volume of poetry, The Second Spring (St. Augustine’s), the 2012 childhood memoir, The Christmas Plains (Image), and the 2014 sociological study of American religion, An Anxious Age (Image). He lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Living with the Dead
A talk at Georgetown University for the National Civic Art Society and the Tocqueville Forum
“I held it truth”—I held it truth: That’s Tennyson, the beginning of In Memoriam:
I held it truth, with him who sings
To one clear harp in divers tones,
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
It’s a nice, clean little statement of Victorian uplift and progress and social improvement. And yet—ah, yes, there is always that and yet, that but and however, for something there is that will not allow endless progress. The Victorians were a people of uplift and yet, at the same time, they were also a people of grief, a people besieged by frequent hearses.
And who, as Tennyson asks,
shall so forecast the years
And find in loss a gain to match?
Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch
The far-off interest of tears?
Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground,
Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
“Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.”
I’m here to speak to you today in praise of grief. I’m here to make the moral, political, and social case for monuments, memorials, cairns, and cenotaphs—for commemorations, mausoleums, shrines, and tombstones.
In the midst of life, we are in death—that antiphon from the funeral Mass is meaningless or worse if we take it entirely as a memento mori, a mere reminder that you and I will surely die. It is, rather, a declaration that death has claimed those we love, that the lingering dead are all around us—and that their ranks are growing. If you have lived any kind of public life, Henry Adams once remarked, after age sixty, every day brings the death of someone you know.
It’s typically modern to confuse the psychological elements of fear and grief, tangling up what we feel when we remember our own mortality and what we feel when we remember other people’s death. The psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 On Death and Dying is probably the most-influential discussion over the last century, and it’s filled with exactly this confusion. But the wrong turn was made by philosophers, as well—as when, for example, Martin Heidegger in Being and Time lifts up our relation to our own death as the basic human experience.
Heidegger is surely right that death belongs at the center of philosophy, but he has always seemed to me fundamentally wrong that the death involved is the death of ourselves. Only in grief do we have and genuine experience of mortality—as Wittgenstein once observed, my birth and my death are not events in my life; they are events in other people’s lives—and the intrusion of death into our lives actually occurs at the deathbeds of our parents and the funerals of our friends.
Now, the psychology of that grief is fascinating. You remember that in the Confessions, Augustine gives two famous accounts of grief: a young man’s pagan rage at the death of his friend in Book Four, and an older man’s Christian sorrow at the death of his mother in Book Nine. I hated all the places we used to go, Augustine says of his friend, for he was absent from them. In both his examples, what Augustine sees is that grief inverts the world. It makes light and dark change places. Presence and absence. Being and time.
Grief is like one of those optical-illusion drawings in which the mind snaps back and forth from seeing a stairway running up to seeing a stairway running down. In grief, the absence is more real than any presence could be. We do not conjure up ghosts when we mourn; instead, the world itself turns ghostly, and the real thing is the absence—the hole in the fabric truer than the fabric that surrounds it.
This kind of strong, inconsolable grief grants us, I believe, an insight into something that happens at the deepest level of culture. This presence of absent things—this intrusion of time into being—forms a pattern that we can see down at the root of the human condition. The past is not an amorphous negation. It exists with the shape of genuine human beings who really were once alive. My deceased father haunts me. My grandfather hovers near me. My great-grandfather . . . no, there it dwindles. Constructed by grief—holes of negation held open by memory—these small, domestic ghosts can linger only for a few generations.
Along the way, however, they reveal the poverty of the now. The significance of life derives from the presence of the future. If we do not have a people and children and hope, then life grows thin and tabescent, stripped of purpose and intelligibility. But where the significance of life comes from the future, the richness of life comes from the past. How we live is thick and meaningful only if we see the momentous past, the ancient ghosts, dwelling among us—beginning, always, with the fact that our parents have died and left their corpses’ care to us.
Death is the anchor for every human association, from the family all the way up to the nation-state. It provides a reason for association; it keeps us from drifting by tying us to a temporal reality larger—richer and more significant—than our individual present can ever be.
This is the purpose of cemeteries and memorials, a metaphysical ground for politics. This is why the attempt to build communities without a central place for the dead is a kind of architectural madness—the reduction of life to poverty. In the midst of life, we are in death.
The proposition I want to put forward is simply this: The living give us only crowds. The dead give us communities.
One way to start thinking about all this is to trace it through political theory. In a certain sense, the problem of how to treat the past is the defining problem of modern times, and it resurfaces in every generation’s political quarrels. Society, as Edmund Burke famously declared in 1790, is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born”—to which Thomas Paine just as famously replied in 1791, “I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away and controlled and contracted for by the manuscript-assumed authority of the dead.”
Thomas Jefferson put much the same thought. “The earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,” he insisted in an exchange of letters with James Madison in the fall of 1789. As it happens, those letters were about the power of modern governments to borrow money, which is not the most obvious place to look for a discussion of death and politics. But the exchange turned quickly into the question of whether public debts incurred in one generation must be paid in another—and thus to considerations of whether the dead can bind the living.
What Madison saw is this: The social world, unlike the natural order, has been manufactured. It was built, maintained, and left to us by particular people, within living memory, whose serial deaths link us to the past. We receive the buildings they put together, the languages they spoke, the books they wrote, the ideas they had, the economic opportunities they made possible, the moral consequences of the things they did, the memories they left in us—just as others will receive ours. “The improvements made by the dead form a debt against the living, who take the benefit of them,” Madison wrote back to Jefferson.
This 1789 correspondence marks a fascinating moment in the history of the American Founding. And yet, in another sense, neither side in this modern debate has fully appreciated the role of the dead in establishing civil society. Consider, for a more recent example, the communitarians in their long struggle against the decline of community. Robert Putnam remains perhaps the most widely read of these recent authors, and he took, you remember, the decline of bowling leagues as his central image for the decay of voluntary associations in America.
The triviality of Putnam’s example may point to the reason the communitarians have not had the success they deserve. Strongly in favor of communities, they have rarely managed to give a philosophical explanation for what it is that actually creates and maintains communities. In their 1980s argument with the high-liberal, anti-metaphysical followers of the political theorist John Rawls, the communitarians essentially recapitulated the quarrel of Burke and Paine, and Madison and Jefferson—but with even less ground to stand on and even less feeling for what it is that the dead provide.
Mutual burial societies, congregations at prayer for the dead: These are the human associations engaged in the kind of metaphysically vital work that makes a community feel important and weighty. Not all groups—not even a particularly large percentage—need to serve death, but a culture’s most-influential communities always will. Whether it’s grand state obsequies at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.—or Remembrance Day at the Elks Club in Ottumwa, Iowa—funeral associations establish a pattern of community from which every other association benefits.
For those interested in architecture and city design, the parallel between the communitarians and the New Urbanists is almost exact—they see what’s wrong, while refusing to enter into the deeper causes that make it wrong.
The New Urbanism emerged a quarter century ago, with the development of Seaside, a community in the Florida Panhandle designed by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and it placed in the American architectural vocabulary words like “walkable” and “neotraditional.” Much of this turns into artificial goo, in the hands of those without a clear idea of what it’s all about. Shoving seven gables and a dozen oversized Palladian windows on a MacMansion doesn’t actually succeed in making it traditional.
But even in more coherent designs, like Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Kentlands development—near here, up in Montgomery County, Maryland—the fear of metaphysical foundations leaves us with a field of dreams, I think: If you build it, they will come—based on a belief that our problems with community are problems of design. All the failures the New Urbanists identify are real. The sprawling American exurb is badly designed, and Kentlands marks a vast improvement. The domestically sized “live/work” buildings, shopfronts with apartments above them, harken back to more human settings, and the integration of parks and streetscapes ties the development together on a human scale.
But without some purpose—some intrusion of time into being, some presence of absent things—the community they seek will remain elusive. It lacks the richness and significance that extends us beyond our selves. For all that the New Urbanism rightly sees itself as restoring human scale in a mechanistic age, it seems, in the end, merely another modern attempt to solve a problem mechanically. Places like Seaside and Kentlands are the equivalent of someone finally redesigning the interior of a car to make it comfortable for the human frame—just at the point the wheels are coming off the axles.
The richness and significance of life need something more, and if they were to ask me—which, I have to admit, no New Urbanist actually has—I would put a cemetery in the center of town, where the shopkeepers have to see it, and the schoolchildren have to walk past it, and the years gradually fill it with the graves of people those shopkeepers and children know.
We could make the same point by going through history rather than political theory. Let’s go back, for a moment, to the Victorians, for it seems to me that they were attempting to use cemeteries and memorials to solve a particular social and cultural problem—and there’s a lesson for us today in how they attempted that task.
As it happens, Washington is a city with two great Victorian cemeteries: the public graveyard of Arlington National Cemetery and the private space of Rock Creek Cemetery. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The Victorians were half in love with death. Nearly every picture shows them in funeral black, and every other novel of the era tells of some lifelong grief they seemed to treasure.
Their Edwardian children despised them for it, of course. To read the Edwardians is to see a generation who believed that their parents were not merely wrong but sick—psychologically and socially perverse, as infatuated with displaying death as they were obsessed with hiding sex. I have gradually come to believe, as the years have gone by, that the Victorians were righter than we are about sex, and righter than we are about death, as well.
Of course, the Victorians often complained themselves. Charles Dickens was always willing to take a swipe at undertakers. He gave them names like “Mould” and “Sowerberry,” and when one of his mortician ghouls looks at little Oliver Twist’s pale, underfed face, he promptly announces that the boy will make a marvelous mourner for children’s funerals. And yet, Dickens was equally willing to indulge the Victorian view of death. Think of Little Nell in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” or young Paul Dombey on his deathbed crying, “What are the wild waves saying, sister?” The dying in Dickens have a gravity and dignity, just because they are dying, and the graves at the end of both Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House act as symbols of community either gained or lost.
Dickensian death is horribly sentimentalized, of course, and it would receive more than its share of mockery, most famously from Oscar Wilde. But stop for a moment and ask, Why exactly is it sentimentalized?
With the Industrial Revolution and the disruption of mass urban migration, Victorians saw that something profound had been lost. Read any of the mid-Victorians—Dickens himself, or Wilkie Collins, or Mrs. Gaskell, for that matter—and the hatred of railroads is palpable: a disturbed and sentimentalized recognition that the transition from the eighteenth century had cost them. And it was primarily to death, in its unifying of culture and its enrichment of the present, that they looked to solve their social and cultural problem.
The Victorians were, in many ways, a fully modern people. They are us—with this difference: that they had child-mortality rates that could approach 30 percent. They were a people surrounded by funeral processions of infants and their mothers lost in childbirth. Little wasted bodies, ah, so light to lower down, as Kipling would later write.
Out of all this, they built a funeral society unlike any other the world has ever seen. This was not worship of ancestors; this was, instead, the living mourning the dead they had actually known. Nor was it a culture of tombs, calling upon the line of its fathers back to the beginning; this was, instead, a culture of grief, building the family and the nation out of private and public losses.
In America, perhaps the best examples of both these attempts are here in Washington—although neither began with such purposes in mind. Rock Creek Cemetery was established in 1719, years before Washington was founded. It was, in part, a typical eighteenth-century resting place, with small, ephemeral markers tied closely to the local community. And it was, in part, an effort to establish what Jane Austen would have called “a wilderness,” a deliberately preserved natural setting as a kind of park.
Meanwhile, Arlington National Cemetery was created in 1864. Born from the pressing need to bury the coffins flowing north from the Civil War battlefields, it also owes its existence to the pettiness of Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who confiscated Robert E. Lee’s family property in Arlington so that no Lee would ever be able to live there again.
Both cemeteries, however, were soon adapted to the new nineteenth-century purposes of defining the family and nation. Rock Creek has its share of interesting monuments, beginning with the 1886 Adams Memorial, built for Henry Adams’ wife Clover and graced by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ famous “Grief” statue.
There’s something interestingly wrong about the Saint-Gaudens sculpture. Nearly all the human figures in Rock Creek have a shallow look. As the art and architecture critic Catesby Leigh has pointed out, they were all carved after the invention of photography, and they seem to be about the play of light on surfaces rather than the occupation of space. They’re three-dimensional photographs instead of traditional sculpture.
Indeed, every Victorian cemetery has something slightly off about it. Even as funeral design was expanding—suddenly we had: Roman courtyards! and Egyptian temples! and Greek porticos! and Gothic gestures!—the results were becoming awkward and inorganic. Traditional architecture was in serious disarray in those days, and the human figures attempted were insufficient to tie it all back together.
Look carefully at Saint-Gaudens’ “Grief.” The deliberate androgyny of the figure sends one message about death. The hooded face sends another. The squared-off, smooth-edged tomb speaks one way; the broken-off, unfinished stone of the statue’s footrest speaks something else. Yet, even in their failed combination, these graves are still striving for a way to express the unity of culture in private grief and domestic deaths.
So, too, in its way, Arlington National Cemetery is trying to achieve a unity of culture—not, in this case, from private mourning but, rather, from public deaths and great national griefs. Our national military cemetery has its own problems with design. Oddly, the graves in the tucked-away privacy of Rock Creek are much more elaborate than the graves amid the open hillside grandeur of Arlington. Even the famous military graves are surprisingly small and understated. Arlington, however, achieves its effect with repetition, with the markers in row after row.
All over Washington, urban design is highly memorialized: the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials—the statues of Phil Sheridan and Daniel Webster, for that matter, scattered around town as permanent traffic hazards. The city of Washington gains its real national gravity, however, from the graves of Arlington, a shadow on the hill across the river.
The Edwardian assault on Victorianism succeeded sooner in England than it did in America, and for several decades in the twentieth century there was a cottage industry of British authors making fun of American funerals: Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 novel, The Loved One, for instance, and Jessica Mitford’s 1963 best-seller, The American Way of Death.
The truly mockable American example chosen by both Waugh and Mitford was Forest Lawn in southern California, whose creator, Hubert Eaton, probably had more influence on the modern cemetery than any other human being. And yet, as the essayist Richard T. Gill noted, Forest Lawn is actually an example of “the beginnings of the American withdrawal from the nineteenth-century commitment to the dead.” Forest Lawn was the prototype of what came to be called the “park cemetery,” and it was designed to minimize death’s individuality. Generic statues are abundant in Forest Lawn, but individual and family memorials are required to be flush against the ground and nearly invisible—so the blades of the lawnmowers pass over undisturbed. Forest Lawn is profoundly, jaw-dropping sentimentalized—in a Walt Disney sort of way—but it belongs to a post-Victorian world. The sentimentality is no longer aimed at a purpose, and the domestic deaths it holds lack any tie to family or community.
The parallel of national purpose has been increasingly lost in public memorials, as well. The Vietnam Memorial, for instance, is not a monument but a cenotaph—an ersatz grave. And yet, the Vietnam Memorial succeeds almost despite itself. The original purpose of the memorial was probably anti-war and certainly not patriotic, as many people saw at the time it was built—which is why they demanded that the ill-matched Frederick Hart sculpture be put in front of it. But the Vietnam Memorial slipped back into being effective, precisely because the vets made it so, running their hands over it and pushing little notes into its crevices—turning it into a public grave.
The national monuments in the days since the Vietnam memorial have been uniformly failures—they are the Vietnam memorial, if the Vietnam memorial had succeeded at its original aim. They are holes in the ground, and they cannot solve the failed mourning of modern death—neither the Disneyland sentimentality of private grief nor the deep postmodern suspicion of the nation state.
The Victorians at least felt the cultural problem they faced. They had places for death, and they had community as a result. The places were over-sentimentalized on the one hand, and over-nationalized on the other. But the Edwardian turn against them has, in its long result, left us without much community at all—without the communion that belongs to a culture when it is haunted by its ghosts.
To find an example of the alternative to Washington’s Victorian structure, we might look to California—for San Francisco is a city essentially without graves. In 1900, the board of supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting burials within the city limits. In 1912, the board announced its further intention to eliminate the city’s previously existing cemeteries, and in 1914 removal notices were sent to all burial sites, declaring them “a public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers.”
A long series of legal battles followed, but by 1937 the San Francisco supervisors had triumphed, and the graveyards were gone. The suburb of Colma—a two-square-mile town in which 73 percent of the land is cemeteries—took many of the bodies, but not all. Perhaps eleven thousand corpses still lie unmarked beneath Lincoln Park, and the broken headstones were used as rubble in Buena Vista, where fragments of their epitaphs can still be read in the retaining walls and drain gutters.
In its way, San Francisco’s turn against graves provides a nice synopsis of the twentieth century, all the forces of modern times pushing toward a single end. So, for example, whatever politicians may have thought they governed, American cities were actually driven, for much of the twentieth century, by the juggernaut of city planners and public-health officers, their eyes gleaming with visions of Tomorrowland’s immaculate metropolis. So, too, the great engine of modern finance put enormous pressure on real estate—skyscrapers! bank towers! the downtown office!—in narrow urban spaces such as the Golden Gate peninsula.
For that matter, San Francisco was merely echoing the twentieth century’s general conviction that the nineteenth century had taken funerals far too seriously—the Edwardians’ strange notion that their Victorian parents were sick with death.
Still, even the most ardent modernist might feel some misgivings about a rejection of the dead as complete as San Francisco’s. And such misgivings reflect, however dimly, a deep political insight—for a city without cemeteries has failed at one of the first reasons for having cities at all. Somewhere in those banished graveyards was a metaphysical ground for politics, and buried in them was a truth that too much of modern political theory seems to have forgotten: From life itself we get only numbers. From death we get community.
There’s hardly a blueprint for immediate political action here, but these propositions of death’s purpose point in certain directions. They tell us why a culture’s strong sense of its own weight and temporal extension is the answer to nihilism and fatalism. They tell us something about why biotechnology’s promises of near immortality disturbs political society so deeply, regardless of whether those promises can be fulfilled. They warn us against the paving over of cemeteries and suggest Americans’ increasing turn to cremation derives from a decay of our awareness of the livingness of the dead.
In particular, they confirm and explain the general intuition that the modern predicament of the family is profoundly related to contemporary demands for euthanasia and the neo-eugenic rejection of the handicapped and dying. Mostly, these propositions about death and politics remind us of the civilization-forming work that grief does.
These are dangerous waters to stir to life, but without them we lack thickness, seriousness, and purpose in our political endeavors. We create true communities only when we have shared dead. Everything else is artificial, and adventitious, and temporary, and incomplete.
The attempt to build cities without graves and nations without memorials is an attempt to deny the human condition, and it leaves us weak, impoverished, and alone. Let Love clasp Grief, as Tennyson demanded,
lest both be drown’d,
Let darkness keep her raven gloss:
Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss,
To dance with death, to beat the ground,
Than that the victor Hours should scorn
The long result of love, and boast,
“Behold the man that loved and lost,
But all he was is overworn.”
And Tennyson was right. In the midst of life, we are in death.