Relationships with the dead


In order to not too abruptly start with such an impossible subject, I would like to approach it from three images that we are familiar with from classical civilization. This has the advantage for me that I know a little bit about that culture and therefore talk about it easily, also when in the end it really concerns our own problems.

In the ninth book of the Odyssey the main character himself says that in a battle with the Kikonians a number of his friends have perished. “From each ship,” says Odysseus, “six well armed men fell. I evaded fateful death with the others. From there we sailed on, deeply saddened by the loss of our buddies, but grateful to have escaped death ourselves. My gracefully arched ships did not continue on their travels, until we had called each of our unfortunate friends three times by their names.” (Od. 9.60-66)

This is an image that everyone, I think, can understand because it is based on an impulse that we can hardly suppress: to call back someone who dies, to call them to order, three times, to give them every chance to undo the irrevocable. Only after this attempt can death as a merciless fact be accepted. Even in an as rationalised and institutionalised establishment as the catholic church this magical impulse has not been suppressed: deceased popes too are called three times by their name, and get three taps with a little silver hammer. The magical borders on the exalted and that in turn borders on the comical.

A second image I find in the oldest Greek images on graves, from the sixth century BCE. Almost always do we see a smile on the face of the deceased. In the arts that is called the ‘archaic smile’: offerers to the gods, gods to the offerers, the deceased who smile to the living. A lot can be said about that, but the essential must be that in this ripple across the face, the belief in a relationship and a living, moving contact is expressed, more quiet than the magic of calling, but also more lasting, more debilitating, and less willing to immediately sail on. It almost seems as though something of another world or another dimension of this world is revealed in it. Whether in that time there was a connection to the then immersing thought of immortality, I don’t know. I actually think that that thought hardly played a role in the true relationship between deceased and relatives. For that ‘immortality’ is too easy a word and too swift a denial of reality.

A following image is another two centuries younger. On an Attical tomb relief from the fourth century BCE a deceased young man is portrayed who stares vacantly ahead in the direction of the viewer. Across from him and unable to catch his eye stands his old father, leaning on a cane. Parallel to that cane and the straight folds of the garb there is an empty plane between both figures: that plane keeps them irrevocably separated. Maybe they are thinking of each other, and in any case, the father looks at the son, but they don’t know it of each other, and the father can only look back, in undivided melancholy.


With these images i’m not concerned about a line of a historical development, for example from a momentary magical attitude of resistance to a melancholy resignation, or as a preparation for a christian, theological approach from biblical data like the promise of a resurrection, but as types of attempts to shape contact with the dead or the impossibility of that. The historical order of those attempts is certainly not without meaning, for a change in culture also brings with it changes in our behaviour and even in our emotions. We can’t escape to react and feel differently than people from other times and cultures. The eternally humane is orchestrated differently in every period and in every culture. Grief in antiquity was different than our own is. We have to overcome a sort of shame to admit, that we understand parts of it.

That’s why I think that, behind our more or less imposed uniformity of talking and reacting, we are still searching for an individual solution. That is not a rational undertaking, nor one that’s culturally stylised as rationality, one that assumes determined certainties or cliches, but it is a searching of a way out or many ways out. We are in this situation less comparable to an animal that acts faultlessly like it’s been programmed to do by instincts and inherited behavioural patterns, but more like an animal that’s been locked in a cage. It can’t trust its instincts in finding a way; it finds many small openings through which it can stick a paw or a nose outside, but none through which it can get out completely. The animal relinquishes its attempts and the friends sail on. I think that we can’t discuss a relationship with the dead without using a word like ‘resignation’. For whatever we think about death and however beautiful we formulate that thought, it is an occurrence in the face of which we ultimately stand passively, and that we can’t ignore without dying from it ourselves.


This occurrence that cannot be imagined and cannot be grind finely by any thought, this hard fact that most resolutely crushes and refutes our thoughts, also determines the nature of our relationships with the deceased. A relationship with a deceased is essentially an existing human relationship that has changed character because of death, in which certain possibilities have been excluded by the most radical occurrence, without clear new perspectives being opened. There is, like in the Attac tomb relief, a line through it, there is a crack in the reciprocity. It is impossible to ignore death to such a degree that the human relationship beyond death remains something matter of fact; I think it will, from itself and always, have a problematic character precisely because of the fracture that was caused by death and that at least demands an adjustment, a new ordering of possibilities and a discarding of impossibilities. I speak of course solely about a reciprocal relationship that already existed before death and that was concrete, not about something like contact with complete strangers in a different world; it concerns changes that occur in an existing relationship between the living. Of these we have to say that they exist by the grace of a potential and preferably frequently realised meetings and interactions. Meetings are made possible by the presence and reciprocity of living persons.


Where one of the conditions is missing, the will to create or keep a connection can still exist, but we can then only speak of a curtailed relationship at best. It seems to me, for example, that in our contact with small children there is too little a case of reciprocity to speak of a real human contact. For that, the share of our own interpretation, almost behind the other’s back, is too great. Nevertheless, of course it can be a joy to mix with children; it’s just that, I believe, they only enlarge our loneliness, rather than annul it, and that we already have to be fairly happy to enjoy this presence without reciprocity.

Also the relationship who is temporarily or permanently absent is curtailed by this absence; to think a lot about someone or merely have written contact necessitates us to, as it were, fill up the relationship with our own mental activities to an integrality of which we can never be sure if it is a product of reciprocity or one of our own imagination and interpretation. The presence of the other is so important, because it refutes our imagination and brings us back to the reality that we share with the other. For that reason I never really understand that people can have a relationship with God, and can address him as though he can answer at any point.


The dead too are not present in the usual sense of the word. They are no longer capable of the reciprocity that determined our meetings with them. For those are precisely the things their death has ended. Death refutes our thoughts, for example the idea that relationships last eternally, and with that it challenges our imagination, too, for example to think that ‘in a certain sense’, ‘on a different level’ etc the contact still remains. I don’t want to speak about this in an unmasking way, for I would degrade myself to a henchman of death. Anything we can salvage from the hands of death is a great gain and eternal possession, no matter how little it is.

But we do have to say, I think, that the change in relation that occurs with death, is in any case a curtailment of its potential; otherwise there wouldn’t be any sadness and grief. Grief is a process in which we get used to a withering of a relationship: the presence and reciprocity shrivel into a past and a memory, and the painful thing is that this minimum is too little for us. We call the dead by their name to invite them to give a sign of their existence and presence. We almost see ourselves obliged to keep them alive in our thoughts and memories, and to pull them away from the abyss with our activities. If we don’t call them, they will disappear forever.


In the stage of grief where we haven’t yet succumbed to the reality of death and to the stylistic compulsions of our culture, including the Christian use of language, we are at our most magical. That finds its way in the fairly poetic expressions about love being stronger than death, or the description that Gabriel Marcel gives of love: “To love someone is saying: you shall not die.” These expressions are touching, but also typical for the overconfidence of life and imagination. They only apply till death refutes it all. Nietzsche said that we are immortal as long as we live.

I’m not concerned here with an unmasking, rather with a purification and with the measure in which we can accept a difference between our way of talking and our awareness of reality. A way of thinking and talking that can not be calibrated by some reality, seems infertile to me and moreover I have the feeling that in the end, we can only be consoled by reality, not by our lonely and powerless imagination. The relationship with the dead is not a denial of death, but an acknowledgement of it, like solace isn’t a denial of sadness, but an acknowledgement. The magic of addressing, greeting, the rituals surrounding a feigned presence are necessary to prepare us for an unimaginable fact. Only after this acceptance can we maybe interpret this fact in a new way and from that interpretation continue our relationship or what’s left of it. The reality of death doesn’t just make our lives and thoughts different; also death itself can, when it occurs, be something else than we thought it would be.


There is a very drastic interpretation in which death is seen as a transition into another life and a temporary separation. On the Attic tomb reliefs that i’ve mentioned, this concept seems to be depicted. Both the living and the dead are visible and physically present, it’s just that the reciprocity has been suspended. But perhaps it is exactly the same with depictions as it is with words; we can imagine and say more than we can reasonable justify. Death as a transition to another life can be a way of speaking that we use, without accounting for the fact that we are talking about something that is almost unthinkable.

More realistic is another interpretation, one that death invites us to itself, because it is connected to the reality itself of the occurrence. Death imposes an inwardness upon us we might not have known before. What we carry around by means of an inward life in ourselves consists partially of unspoken thoughts surrounding death. Its reality redirects our relationship with fellow humans to the one active pole that remains. At the same time as the reciprocity ends the ambivalence that usually characterises a living contact. The possibilities of the deceased have been fulfilled, they have become past and now nothing can happen to them anymore. What they were for the time being, they are now definitely and eternally. Their goodness, the reason why we mourn them, can only now truly permeate us. The wisdom to ‘speak no ill of the dead’ might come from this realisation and from the guilt about a lack in appreciation , rather than from a magical fear of revenge. The problem of a relation with the dead only occurs after all in connection with loved ones who are suddenly no longer there; it teaches us at the same time that we don’t have a relationship with most people, or a very meagre one: most people aren’t there for us. Some dead are, despite their absence, more present in our lives than most living.


So partially the relation consists of a missing and of the awareness that our possibilities of contact have been curtailed. The missing is the way in which the absent stays present. We don’t miss what we don’t have, but what we’ve had and wanted to keep. Missing is, coming from us, an attempt to hold onto the past and make it into the present. In this missing sometimes the past becomes the reality pre-eminently, the sum of all that is already been realised no longer needs to be dreamed. But also from itself the past continues to work on, probably more than we can rationally calculate and in a way that we hardly chose ourselves. My relationship with my deceased father, if I may be so personal, is not just missing and memories from my side, a late guilt, unuttered gratitude, a hundred questions of things only he could still know, he is also still, even against his wishes, present in my life by the effect of his earlier presence, by traces of his influence on my behaviour, and probably not in the least by the message of a inherited disposition. The more i’m growing aware of that, the more I remain connected to him and feel related to him, and the more I’m inclined to something like an ancestral cultus, in which the weight of existence is not so much placed in the perilous moment of life than in the solid presence of a whole ancestry. I think that this feeling of solidarity with people who have lived might be the vaguest relationship we can have with the dead, but it is also the most important one in our own lives, which are after all mortal in every sense.

Portrait of Cornelis Verhoeven by Wim van de Voort


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