Care of the Dead

Introduction

The early Chinese philosophers argued heatedly about how to care for the dead.  In this unit, three of the most distinctive views of the period are presented.  These can be treated together but also easily break apart for smaller lessons or units with other materials.

Courses: 

Introduction to Ethics; Death and Dying; Practical/Applied Ethics or problem-centered ethics courses

Overview

The early Chinese philosophers argued heatedly about how to care for the dead.  In this unit, three of the most distinctive views of the period are presented.  In my experience, students really take to this discussion and debate, seeing in each of the Chinese views sentiments they recognize as somewhat in play in contemporary life.  And, perhaps surprisingly, students tend already to find American funerary culture bizarre and worth philosophical scrutiny.  In broad overview, the three philosophical positions represented are as follows:

  • Xunzi is a Confucian who advocates elaborate mourning ritual, giving a psychologized foundation for this in the naturalness of grief and its need for organized, ethical outlet.  Interestingly, while he does not avow any belief in a post-mortem survival of the dead, respect for the dead is core to his account.  His account suggests we need to care for the dead as symbolic human beings, yet must also carefully regulate against the disgust decay of the corpse can induce.
  • Mozi is a consequentialist who avidly resists the elaborate mourning procedures common in early China and advocated by Confucians.  He thus argues that arrangements for mourning must assiduously answer first to the needs of the living.  “Needs” here are, moreover, presented in terms of basic well-being.  E.g., elaborate grave goods or coffining are derided as burying wealth that the living need in order to satisfy the basic demands of well-being.
  • Zhuangzi is historically classified as a Daoist, but this late designation is perhaps best ignored in order to treat Zhuangzi in his singularity.  Zhuangzi offers multiple comical stories of sages who not only refuse to grieve the dead, they engage in playful banter about and with the dying.  “Consolation calls” upon a dying friend here become a chance to speculate about whether the dying’s life energy will transform into a bug’s arm.  Sages merrily sing over the corpse of a dead friend and Zhuangzi himself converses with a skull.  Throughout, Zhuangzi appears to endorse a form of wisdom that not only re-directs the person away from grief but steers toward comedy and play as a way to assert affinity with changeable nature and natural processes.  He rejects all but a superficial or perfunctory engagement with funerary ritual.

There are multiple ways these three can operate together thematically in a course that wants to treat questions surrounding death.   Questions that could orient discussion include:  A) What is the “problem of death”?  The Chinese sources suggest the deaths of others are a significant problem, equal to, if not greater than, the problem posed by my own mortality.  B) Is sorrow at the death of another healthy and/or wise?  Does grief have ethical significance?  C)  How do any obligations to the dead balance against the needs of the living or incorporate needs of the living?  D) How do we conceptualize what a corpse is with respect to ethical attitudes toward human beings or toward nature writ large?  E) In a course with a strong component on problems in practical ethics, this can offer a “new” problem to consider, yet one that has considerable purchase in ordinary contemporary life where funerary ritual has become a commercialized, profit-seeking industry.

Class Readings/Schedule:

Day 1:  Orienting Reading

I recommend situating the debate here with some contemporary material on funerary practice.  E.g., Philippe Aries, “The Reversal of Death: Changes in Attitudes Toward Death in Western Societies,” American Quarterly 26.5: 536-560, especially Sections 2 and 3; and/or screening Episode 1, first season, Six Feet Under.

Day 2:  Xunzi, Chapter 19:  Discourse on Ritual (in Bryan Van Norden and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Readings in Early Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014)

Day 3:  Mozi, Chapter 25:  Moderation in Funerals (in Bryan Van Norden and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Readings in Early Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014)

Day 4:  Zhuangzi, pp. 222, 226, 237-240  (in Bryan Van Norden and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Readings in Early Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014)

Supplementary Reading for the Instructor:

For broader context of the philosophers’ views:
For work more specifically on how death and mourning are presented:
  • Erin Cline, “The Boundaries of Manners,” Dao 15: 241-255, esp. pp. 247ff.
  • Amy Olberding, “From Corpses to Courtesy,” Journal of Value Inquiry 49: 145-159, especially section 2.
  • Amy Olberding, “Sorrow and the Sage,” Dao 6: 339-359.

ACTIVITY

Prior to considering the philosophers’ work, I recommend having students do a short essay or exercise in which they address how they want their own corpse managed upon their deaths – e.g., Do they want a funeral?  Do they wish to be embalmed and “displayed” in an “open casket”?  Would they object to their mourners showing no grief?  Returning to ordinary life quickly?  Most importantly, would their answers to any of the above differ if the issue was not their own burial but that of loved one?