Mourning Texts as Literature and Philosophy: Still Lives

Image Credit:  Vanitas  by Johannes Borman

Image Credit: Vanitas by Johannes Borman


1.     Digital humanities in the age of big data and visualization


Digital humanities research promises to lead to new insights and to complement existing methods. However, it has developed rather haphazardly, with substantive contributions in some disciplines and only superficial uses in others. Such research has made almost no inroads in philosophy, for example; of the nearly two million articles, chapters, and books housed at, only sixteen pop up when one searches for ‘digital humanities’. In order to make progress in this field, we demonstrate that a hypothesis-driven method, applied by experts in data-collection, -aggregation, -analysis, and –visualization, yields philosophical fruits. In this chapter, we explain and motivate our choice of corpora. We also explain the rudiments of our text and meta-data mining, our method of aggregating and comparing texts, and our visualization techniques. In so doing, we pave the way for other researchers in philosophy, literature, and history to generate similar analyses and visualizations.


Ancient necrologies and communal values

2.     Pericles and Plato vie for the soul of Athens


The fallen soldier is a traditional rallying cry for both hawks and doves. Hawks praise the deceased as a hero, celebrating his (or, in rare cases, her) virtues, such as courage, patriotism, and loyalty. Doves lament an unnecessary loss, reflecting on what might have been achieved by men of such mettle. Either way, as Walzer argues in Just and Unjust Wars, it is “important to say of those who died in war that they did not die in vain,” which he glosses in terms of there being “purposes that are worth dying for,” such as “political independence, communal liberty, human life” (1977, pp. 109-10). But pacifists too can argue that soldiers have not died in vain if their deaths shock us into terminating a pointless war. By pairing Pericles’ famous eulogy with what Plato alleges is Aspasia’s counter-speech, we highlight two of the central themes of the book. First, one is obliged to speak well of the dead, but how one lives up to this demand is an opportunity for identifying and perhaps even shaping the values of one’s community. Second, the gender of the speaker and the gender of the deceased often interact to filter or augment the set of virtues celebrated in a funerary text.


3.     Filial sons, beloved mothers, and loyal ministers in Han China


To strengthen the cross-cultural significance of the book, we will scrape the funerary materials in The Collection of Stone Inscriptions database. Housed at Beijing’s Palace Museum, this database contains 15,000 stone inscriptions from various eras, along with scholarly transcriptions into modern Chinese; it also includes almost all extant historical Chinese epitaphs in the form of rubbings or pictures. Using its digital retrieval system, to which we have access through professional colleagues, we will seek out epitaphs related to specific Chinese character (such as孝, which refers to filial piety), as well as demographic characteristics such as gender and social rank. Next, we will code the value-related terms from these texts, then map them using the techniques described in chapter 1. As Brown (2008) points out in her study of several dozen exemplars, these Chinese epitaphs praise the virtues and values of the deceased by lauding, among other things, their righteousness, incorruptibility, and justice.


Saints, sinners, and spouses

4.     Dante’s empyrean virtues


Plato’s Menexenus is literary in a way, but the first main text of literature to which we turn our attention is Dante’s Paradiso. This neglected text is the capstone of the Divine Comedy, and it is constructed around the conceit of concentric circles of heaven, each of which is associated with either imperfect or perfect embodiment of a worldly virtue (prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) or a theological virtue (faith, hope, love). The characters we meet in this poem enjoy heavenly bliss precisely because they have died after exemplifying virtue on Earth. The issue of gender continues to take center stage, as Dante is guided through this divine world by his muse Beatrice.


5.     Bereaved husbands and condoling friends in late imperial China


In the Confucian tradition, receipt of a posthumous biography or epitaph was traditionally reserved for men who had been moral exemplars. Both gender and virtue served as filters for memorialization. However, by the late imperial period, writing epitaphs for men who could hardly be considered exemplars had become common, and women too began to be eulogized in scrolls and stelae. In this polygamist society, the gendering of virtue was especially fraught because of the distinction between wives and concubines. In addition, because memorialization after death was associated with exemplarity and honor (even if, in fact, non-exemplars received such treatment), it became a point of pride for high-placed men not only to eulogize their deceased wives but also to solicit eulogies from peers and friends. Drawing on the work of Martin Huang (2013), who has explored the differences between semi-anonymous commissioned epitaphs and those written by intimate relatives such as bereaved husbands, we apply our digital humanities methods to such texts.


Heroes, villains, and clowns

6.     Mourning in verse: Gender in English elegy from Donne to Tennyson


Following the exploration of literary praise for the dead in Dante’s Paradiso, we turn to English elegy as a source necrological material. Writers often convert the intimate experience of grief into a model for other mourners to follow, and thus into a tactic for revealing and influencing their culture’s conception of value and virtue – frequently in a gendered way. For instance, when Alfred Tennyson refers in his 1850 poem In Memoriam to his dead friend Hallam as “full of power […] gentle; liberal-minded, great, / Consistent,” he establishes a template for 19th-century masculine virtues.


7.     Read all about it: The rise of the newspaper obituary


From their beginnings in the early eighteenth century, modern obituaries have been both practical and honorary (Fergusson 1999). They are often written with two aims: to pay respect to the deceased and to inspire the living to follow in their footsteps. The obituary of William Custis of Virginia exemplifies these aims, say that “it is due to his memory publicly to record his virtues,” and that “There is in the life a noble, independent and honest man, something so worthy of imitation, something that so strongly commends itself to the approbation of the virtuous mind, that his name should not be left to oblivion” (Daily National Intelligencer, 18 November 1838). In this chapter, we develop most fully our digital humanities methods, analyzing, visualizing, and interpreting a corpus of roughly twenty million texts from both local newspapers and national papers such as the New York Times, in which the elite and the infamous are remembered.


8.     “Good riddance to the freeloading bastard”: Dark humor in Monty Python and beyond


Negative obituaries and eulogies are vanishingly rare. Those few that exist are the exception that proves the rule, De mortuis, nil nisi bonum. The authors of such obituaries almost always flout the convention of speaking well of the dead intentionally in order to make a forceful point. When John Cleese eulogized his fellow Monty Python player, he shocked his audience into laughter by saying, “Good riddance to the freeloading bastard – I hope he fries.” More recently, Sue Hovey insisted that her family mention that she “wanted her obituary to note that she was born Feb. 12, 1932, during a depression brought on by the Republican Party, and that she died on Jan. 13, 2015, during the recovery from a recession brought on by the Republican Party” (Moscow-Pullman Daily News, 19 Jan 2015). Humor – perhaps especially dark humor – thrives on flouting norms of propriety. But humor – again, perhaps especially dark humor – can also be deadly serious. In this chapter, we review and analyze several of the most scandalous obituaries, eulogies, and other funerary texts to explore both the norms they flout and the purposes to which such flouting can be put.


Memento mori

9.     The ethics of grief and mourning: From Antigone to the digital age


Goethe allegedly observed that we die twice: first when we stop breathing, and again when the last of those who knew and loved us die. Philosophers such as Blustein (2008) have persuasively argued for the duty to remember and memorialize, which involves obligations to ensure accuracy, sincerity, emotional aptness, publicity, and longevity. We do a disservice to someone’s legacy if we attribute characteristics that they did not embody, if we insincerely express our grief, if we erase or hide their characteristics, or if we let their memory fade too quickly. These sometimes-complementary, sometimes-competing injunctions have been recognized in the West as far back as Pericles’ funeral oration and Plato’s Menexenus, and similar themes have been emphasized in various other traditions, including the Confucian one explored earlier in the book. In this closing chapter, we reflect on the ethics of grief and mourning, concluding with special attention to the ethics of deleting someone’s digital remains – a timely topic explored recently by Stokes (2015).