Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Monuments to Selfishness?

A former teacher of mine tweeted a link to this article, which I found quite provocative (unsurprising, as this teacher's specialty has always been goading his students toward meaningful thought).  The author and I are coming from such different mindsets that we can hardly have a conversation, but I'm going to respond anyway.

The author asserts that ornate, lasting grave markers are a mark of selfishness, that they "represent an almost universal human self-indulgence."  Professor MacCulloch lauds the older practice in English churchyards of marking graves with simple wooden planks that "gently decayed back into the soil, making way for the next generation of the dead."  His preference for the unadorned and impermanent puts me in mind of something written recently by remarkably talented artist Matthew Alderman: "If Puritanism is the fear that someone somewhere is having fun, progressivism must be the fear that someone somewhere is enjoying beauty."  Professor MacCulloch (a "progressive," I'm willing to bet, judging by the digression at the end of the article railing against the use of fossil fuels) seems to support the idea that previous generations must be dealt with and then forgotten, pushed aside (or beneath, as it were) in favor of the next, with the inexorable march of time leading us always onward to better things.  Why create lasting memorials to Bygones when the New will always be better?  Where is the value in erecting something beautiful, when that space could be reused?

This article came at an interesting time.  It is the first week of November, which the Church sets aside especially for devotions in aid of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  This is why I say Professor MacCulloch and I are too far apart really to have a conversation:
Tombs represent an almost universal human self-indulgence, a longing to perpetuate individual existence, if possible, for ever. Not just Christians have felt that way; the impulse goes right back to the pyramids of Egypt and beyond.  For Christians, it’s illogical, because Christianity is based on the principle that there is not much that you and I can do to influence our fate after death; it’s all in the hands of God.  In any case, if you believe in life after death, the soul is nowhere near those graves sealed by granite and marble.  So in Christian culture, an ornamental grave really is self-indulgence. 
The Church says otherwise.  Certainly, all is in God's hands, but prayer has real power.  The souls of the faithful departed endure the purifying fires of Purgatory so they may be made clean and then enter into the ineffable joy of the Beatific Vision.  That process can be sped along when members of the Church Militant beg for the application of Redeeming Grace on behalf of the Holy Souls.

I spent a lovely morning yesterday walking with my girls around Nashville's Catholic cemetery.  We wandered and prayed for the souls of those buried there, and we enjoyed the beauty of the statues, especially in the older sections.  Rita Mae asked why we were there, and I told her about the wonderful gift we can give the Holy Souls by praying for them, especially during this week.  She was captivated by the monuments; she flitted from plot to plot, asking me to read the inscriptions to her and then pausing to pray by name for each person represented there.  It was beautiful.

I believe the souls for whom we prayed benefited from the indulgences we gained for them.  I do not believe that the monuments they built benefit only those memorialized.  I know that I was edified both by their aesthetic merit and by the work of charity in which they encouraged me to participate.  I know they were an aid in teaching my daughter about prayer, charity, and God's mercy.  This isn't the lesson Professor MacCulloch would have us draw from that "crowd of stones," but I daresay it's a better one.


  1. He's wrong about what a tomb represents. A tomb is not, fundamentally, an individual's self-indulgent attempt to perpetuate his own existence; it's his descendents' monument to the contributions of the past. (After all, future generations have always shown themselves amenable to tearing down old structures for which they don't care.) Because the Church is only partially made up of those people currently walking around, and because even the immanent elements of culture and society are built around the contributions and achievements of past generations, the dead deserve remembrance. That would be true even if remembrance of death itself and it's impending arrival for oneself were not a grave matter, macabre pun intended. A world without gravestones is not only a world ruled by the petty tyranny of those who happen to be walking about, it's a world that has forgotten at least one---and likely more than one---of the Four Last Things.

    The silly derision of the dead and their monuments is a microcosm of the silliness of Protestantism itself. The whole thing invariably devolves into some sort of individualistic manicheaism: a man who will neither pray for his dead father nor show honor to his mortal remains can hardly be said to believe in the communion of saints, the goodness of creation, or the resurrection of the body.

    As for the historical point, if there was an English practice of simple wooden headstones, it certainly wasn't a societal aspiration. See, e.g.,

  2. Dang girl, well written and well said! Sorry I'm so very behind on my blog reading.

  3. Great article! So glad you found my blog so that I could find yours. :) Also, Matt Alderman is a friend of mine-- if it's OK I'll let him know that he has a fan! Looking forward to reading much more.

    1. Ummm just realizing your hubby is an ND law alum? So you prob know Matt, too. My hubby and I were undergrads at ND. Small world!