Mortui Vivos Docent: On Learning from the Dead

“For some strange reason,” writes G. K. Chesterton, “man must always thus plant his fruit trees in a graveyard. Man can only find life among the dead. Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back."
Mar 4, 2014

It is unfortunate, but when people wish to have a picnic today, they seldom choose a cemetery. Assuming there are still some who believe in the salutary nature of picnics anymore, most people have in mind different settings than a sepulcher. Instead, most of us imagine eating camembert and drinking tannic red wine in some pastoral scene from a Dutch master, a verdant hillock descending to a field where peasants are mowing barley in the foreground, children with paper boats navigating the shoals of mild rivulets nearby. There would be cattle, of course, bleating and dotting the landscape, as well as the grandeur of antique fragments rising behind. But when Christians living in fourth century Rome had a picnic, they went to the tombs of martyrs. And here we find a wondrous paradox: the morbidity of antique Christians is yet still merrier than all the revels of pagan Rome.  

And what might also appear to Modern eyes as macabre actually has quite lucid wisdom. The historic Church has always confronted death. The first to confront it was Christ himself on Good Friday. Then, in his descent ad inferos, he preached to the souls in bondage. And according to Dante, hell is still is talking of it: “I saw coming One of power and might,” Virgil tells Dante, “crowned with the glorious sign of victory” (Inferno IV. 53-55, Esolen translation).  After Christ’s Resurrection, St. Paul can say with confidence, Ubi est mors victoria tua; ubi est mors stimulus tuus (I Cor. 15:55). From this point on, death could no longer be seen as final or even as a normal terminus in the revolving economy of pagan cosmology. Like Sampson to the Philistine gates, Christ had ripped the doors of hell from the hinges of tragic metaphysics. Christ “trampled death by death” and thus canceled out its power, even to the point that it might give life. Take the Cross, for instance. “Even the cross,” writes David Bentley Hart, “Rome’s most ‘persuasive’ image of terror, is conquered and becomes a far more persuasive image of love” (Beauty of the Infinite, 354).   

God is not the God of the dead but of the living, says Jesus, “for to him all live” (Luke 20). And in defense of the resurrection, Jesus then cites the passage of the burning bush, in which Moses is summoned by the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Wait, we think, those guys are dead, though. For who would have chosen that passage as proof text for the Resurrection? But Jesus is not a materialist, not even grammatically. Clearly, he establishes the truth that the earth does not belong exclusively to the living and that the living are (surprise) not the only ones living. Historically, therefore, it seemed fitting for ancient Christians to hallow the deaths of martyrs; Scripture itself speaks of faith as a kind of remembering. Thus, St. Augustine mentions how his mother kept the refrigerium, the common practice of feasting with “offerings of pottage, bread and wine at the tombs of the martyrs” (Confessions VI.2). The very name of this practice expresses a paradox: the refrigerium, where we get our modern word for those appliances that preserve our perishable foods, came to be a tangible (we might say sacramental) rite that “kept fresh” the memory those beloved dead. When we pass by the graveyards today, however, we do not see people spread out before a cracked and weathered headstone, praying and feasting in solemnity. And though St. Ambrose himself discouraged it, the intention was yet good. Regardless of when the custom was finally abandoned, the purpose was ultimately to “not remove the ancient boundary stone,” that is, to preserve the Christian culture, to forbid the dust and weeds of time’s forgetfulness to overgrow the wisdom of the dead. By visiting the dead, one became more alive.  

 “For some strange reason,” writes G. K. Chesterton, “man must always thus plant his fruit trees in a graveyard. Man can only find life among the dead. Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic, so long as he is thinking about the past.” To prove this we need only look to history.  The European Renaissance, for instance, began not with the fair wind of socioeconomic conditions but with the rediscovery of dead languages. As Hilkiah found the Torah and wiped the dust and cobwebs still clinging to the Law of God, so the medieval scholars found the decayed parchments of Homer, the Attic playwrights, Roman philosophers and poets and all the bones of their rhetoric. The result was life. And such life was only the unparalleled creative remaking of Europe, a rebirth of Christian civilization such as the world has never seen. Many have even postulated that the Black Death was a principle cause of the Renaissance; facing constant death forced a man to think on his life—to live more piously, more beautifully, and more boldly. In other words, renaissance begins not because of something new but because of something old, and rebirth not from the contemplation of things living but of things dead.

It was this same principle that animated the small flowering of American letters in the early nineteenth century. Emerson, while asking why we “should we grope among the dry bones of the past,” was at the same time delivering his Lyceum lectures to vivify culture by, ironically, looking to the past. The thinking man, says Emerson, must be willing to “relinquish display and immediate fame” and “often forego the living for the dead.” It is the fool who disdains the past. It is the fool who, like Huck Finn, can’t listen to, learn from, or delight in the story of Moses, because he himself “take[s] no stock in dead people.” Huck is not alone, however; he merely expresses the evolutionary creed to which so many ascribe today.

Before we dismiss the refrigerium of the past as weird, morbid, unhealthy, let us look to Modernity and examine our own customs. Nowadays we put our dead out of sight. Church graveyards used to contain “God’s Acre,” as Longfellow puts it, “The place where human harvests grow.” The daily reminder of death once hung like frontlets between the eyes of the town. One can still find this in some places of America today, especially in the “Christ-haunted” South. But today we hide old age because we are ashamed of it. Our hospitals conceal death behind their antiseptic doors. And our churches have turned their graveyards into parking spaces. The old adage, “number your days,” has been forgotten and replaced with Huck Finn’s sentiment. Like many materialists today, Huck can dismiss the wisdom of the dead because he puts his faith in another creed: survival of the fittest. But such a phrase has no image of rest or reflection, no room for art or love. Numbering our days, on the other hand, involves furnishing the room of our minds with the past, which in turn allows us to “apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Far from morbidity, numbering our days affords us a particular type of leisure, one that transcends hungry-eyed survival, that gives preference to nobler desires, and that makes room for higher emotions, such as peace, consolation, joy, and praise. In the end, the practice of feasting at the tombs of martyrs accords with the Biblical counsel to number our days and, in one sense, forms a fitting symbol of learning from the past. Thus the refrigerium, however bleak it may appear to modern eyes, affords us an image of leisure where the dead do indeed teach the living.  

Devin O'Donnell

Devin O'Donnell

Devin O’Donnell is the author of The Age of Martha (Classical Academic Press, 2019). He served as Research Editor of Bibliotheca and has taught Literature for 15 years. ​Devin and his family live on the foggy coasts of central California. He is Headmaster of St. Abraham's Classical Christian Academy and is a classical hack, who came up through the manhole covers of learned society to find wisdom. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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