HOW WE EVALUATE THE DEAD — THE PERSON AND THEIR WORK
(in memory of the late friend and coworker Spyros Psomas)
In the attempt to sketch the personality of one who has died — regardless of whether this is a sudden funeral oration after a recent death or a sober dedication following the passage of years — we unintentionally introduce an unfair two-fold ‘reduction’ in the value of that fellow human being. We do so by repeatedly using one fateful word.
If we could fully appreciate the moral weight involved in such a deficient evaluation — since a ‘reduction’ is always a ‘discount’ — it should be considered certain that no honourable or prudent person would dare to take upon himself the responsibility of such an injustice. The less one could claim not to have had the opportunity to avoid the social responsibility of publicly evaluating the departed, the greater the injustice.
Let us look at this fateful word, so that we may avoid the injustice as much as possible. We use it directly and without circumlocution. We are referring to the verb “was”.
Having the unstated certainty that the dead person no longer has the possibility of surprising us — either by questioning or overturning our evaluations by word or action — we unhesitatingly declare that the individual in question “was” this or that. It is as if we weighed the impact of an entire life, or the final “measure” of the mystery of the ‘personal otherness’ every time, with a sort of infallible “measurement of ethos”.
To see how dangerous it is to “judge” the living or the dead, it would perhaps be sufficient to recall the dissuasive words of Christ “do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt 7:1). This apparently peaceful command of Christ is not simply a loving admonition. It is above all the comprehensively expressed loving verdict of the All-knowing God, in relation to the impartial divine Nemesis, which vigilantly looks at this profane act, so that the one who is judged mainly is always the one who judges!
This truth is even expressed figuratively by a popular German saying, which states that “when you denounce a fellow human being by pointing, one finger points at him and three point at your own self”.
Given however that, in our lukewarm and gradually disintegrating age, even the words of Christ are no longer considered to be “divine law” — not for the nominal Christians either — we must make a more thorough analysis of the question at hand. This will perhaps shed light more fully on at least the fundamental moral dimensions of a “critique” which at first glance may appear to be ‘innocent’.
We mentioned an unintentional, and therefore unstated, double ‘reduction’ made to the value of the dead. This double ‘reduction’ is unquestionably due mainly to two ‘oversights’, if not plain mistakes, a word that is more neutral and uninvolved in relation to the perpetrator.
The first “oversight” has to do with the fact that we seem to forget that, if the human person has a unique place in the rest of the animal kingdom, this is not due to his notorious “intelligence quotient”. However, it is primarily due to the moral fact that he has been created in “the image and likeness of God”. For us to believe, then, that such a “likeness”, which is called to become an unprecedented “identity” through the process of deification, can be summarised and represented, as an approximation, only with the quantified “deeds” of a mostly unknown and enigmatic inner life — unknown even to the person concerned — is not simply inaccurate. It is a literally procrustean mutilation. For, briefly speaking, if God is infinite, then His image must also be considered to be infinite. This means that the human being, as a “person” cannot be confined, and can therefore not be ‘translated’ into the given narrow confines of space and time of the present life. Thus, after physical death, the greatest part of the “human potentiality” given to each person by God inevitably remains untransformed into ‘energy’, which is why the final judgement and evaluation belongs only to God.
The second oversight consists in the fact that, with the physical death of a person, we believe that his “presence” or “activity” has been sealed forever. Indeed, there is the common saying that “the departed is now justified” , which is repeated with much “magnanimity” by those who do not wish to deal with the responsibly substantiated life of the deceased fellow human being. The late Professor of Law H. Fragistas once humorously “demystified” that kind of generosity with the following perceptive comments, “is it possible, when we say that the departed is justified, to mean that, just by physical death, he has received complete remission of sins? How do we know what God will do with him in the next life? The only meaning that we can see in this saying, then, is that the departed has ceased to commit injustice”.
However, putting aside the mystery of the human person and its final moral evaluation (out of respect and awe), we cannot doubt that no matter how insignificant or silent the life of a fellow human being may have seemed, he or she always leaves behind some signs — strong in some cases and weaker in others — that allow them to be remembered (particularly by those who were closest to him). This is approximately like the pulsating movements of any material body: no matter how weak the sound waves it produces, these “waves” are not entirely wiped out with the passage of time. They wander constantly somewhere in the atmosphere and, with a device of appropriate accuracy, they could be “fished out”, in a sense, and become more broadly audible once again.
We can then say that the survival of the personality of the dead is not simply a question of “fame after death” — however and to whatever extent this was attended to — beforehand or afterwards, whether by the person himself or the interested friends and relatives. It is something that surpasses the artificial, so to speak, “external testimony”. It is a natural consequence of the indestructible and inexhaustible character of the human person created in the “image of God”.
If this is true for every person, how much more so for figures who stood out due to their particular talents in the arts and letters, moral struggles, science, public life in general or in the political arena in particular.
Therefore the verb “was” is not justified when speaking of one who lived self-consciously. Once the path of earthly struggle is completed, “life expires” according to bodily functions, but the memory and fame which remains is endless.
from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 21/8, August 1999
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia
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