Digging a grave is not like digging a hole. Some of the difference is quickly discovered. A grave wants to be tidy, the sides cut smooth and corners keen. The work is careful, not quick, and it is much physically harder than I expected. For in digging I discovered why the cemetery sits where it does on our family farm. It rests on a rise of land overlooking an expanse of lower pasture and, beyond that, hills that push away west and show the last of the sun in evening. It’s beautiful, yet this is but coincidence. The cemetery sits where it does because its soil is so leavened with rock as to make farming untenable. This, then, is the prudent logic of location in the always sorry economics of farming. We bury our dead in our loveliest spot, but this is because we bury them in the worst of our dirt.
In digging, I remembered too well that tombstones have purpose beyond serving sentiment. We mark graves to announce human significance, the tombstone a tangible sign that our dead lived and we rued their loss. But we also mark graves for the ones who must dig next. My grandfather recalled his boyhood experiences digging graves in our cemetery, with its several unmarked graves. What stones there were for these were long ago lost, so “sometimes,” my grandfather would say, “we’d be digging and hit coffin, and we’d have to move over and start again.” An unmarked grave evokes sorrow for dead completely forgotten, but it also makes potential trouble for next gravedigger. When I dug a grave, I hoped against this trouble.
But grave digging just is trouble, and trouble of the worst sort. Grief is dirty and it is work. One doesn’t want it easier – that just seems, as Dostoyevsky might say, false to the fact – but help would be nice.
I’ve always thought that whatever else philosophy does, it should help. I expect many people have thought so, but the ones we study most are little help with grave digging. To be sure, they have much to say about death. Philosophy itself, if we heed Plato, is training for death, the mental discipline that readies its practitioners to die well, without fear and anxiety. Plato was schooled in this by Socrates, that philosopher whose death perhaps marks the genesis of all philosophy in the west. Socrates died with fierce defiance – of the shortsighted contemporaries who persecuted him, but more ambitiously of death itself. He would not fear it, insisting instead upon the power of reason to overmaster anxiety. But he is not a philosopher with whom I could bear to dig a grave.
Much of philosophy in the west simply takes it as obvious that the problem of death is that I will die. It was so for Socrates and Plato, and remains so now: Pick up any recent philosophy collection on death and you will find much to school you on your own end, much that will work away at whether you ought count your death bad and attempt to sort your mortality into rational order. For in most of our philosophy still, the death that matters is your own. This is why most philosophers would make poor gravediggers, poor companions in grief.
I will die – of course I will – and I suppose that represents a challenge of sorts. But the problem I have with death is that other people die. Whatever trouble my own death poses is but dull afterthought to more potent longings against loss. Where one wants help with this, one must look elsewhere, to poets, memoirists, or novelists. If one wants a philosopher, though, best look to China. There one finds philosophers who feel the trouble of graves.
When Confucius buried his parents, he built a mounded grave, one that would be visible and stand above its surrounds. Great care was taken to build it well, for its height would be the way he would find it again when he would wish to return. The fates were against him, however, and under the weight of uncommonly heavy rains, the mound collapsed. When his students informed him of this, they had to repeat the news three times, Confucius unable to take it in. As understanding broke upon him, he wept openly, wrecked by the failure to make some modest symbolic good out of sorrow.
In my own digging, I felt the force of Confucius’ distress. One wants so badly in grief to exercise what pitiably small control one can, to make something go right where all has gone wrong. So too, one wants to do for the dead, not because they’ll know what we do in laying their graves, but because it feels, however modestly, something like life once did. When they lived, the dead took what we could offer – conversation, affection, shared experiences – and they gave back in kind. Death puts them beyond reach of our doings, but in mourning we pledge ourselves against this, telling the fates that not all is altered. We hold in remainder the power to do for them just a little bit more and a little bit longer. And, since it is all we can do, we want this bit of doing to go right and well. To have it go badly or, worse, to have failed to make our efforts the best we could, is to suffer a redoubling of loss.
The Daoist Zhuangzi is in many ways a foil to Confucius. He describes sages cheerfully singing beside the corpse of a dead friend, reveling in nature’s endless transformations. Sometimes he rejected the idea of graves altogether, suggesting that burying the dead but arbitrarily favors worms over birds as nature has her way with our remains. Zhuangzi’s happy sages come to prize death precisely because they prize life, understanding that change, including the dramatic change of death, is where we find whatever beauty, interest, and meaning life can afford. Without it, much that makes our happiness would be lost. Still, even Zhuangzi could not pass the grave of a friend without melancholy. Seeing his companion Huizi’s grave, he speaks to Huizi, ruefully observing that he now has no one with whom to talk.
Zhuangzi’s vision of a world without graves is tempting, as if giving up the burial of our dead could lay to rest our grief. It would also be a valuable admission of human vanities, a check on all the ways we strive to make monuments in life and out of our lives. Efforts to make that which will last are a folly in defiance of how the world works, its endless capacity to forget and, in the dreadful phrase, “move on.” But even Zhuangzi saw the wide difference between vainly heroic aspirations to defy mortality through our memorializing actions and wishing one’s own dear friend was not dead. In the latter, one cares not about monuments to human significance, but about the lost chance to have one more ordinary word. A grave can’t fix this, but it gave Zhuangzi a place to talk when death had shut the ears of the one he wanted to listen. However sorry a substitute, a grave may save the interchange between friends from becoming a dead language. Or, at least, provide a place to speak of languages lost.
Another Confucian, Xunzi, meditates on the problems our dead present as corpses. Dead bodies are not like living bodies, but neither are they terribly different when they belong to one’s own. We want to keep our dead, save them from the nullity of death, even as the blunt facts of decay insist that we must take leave. The trouble then is how to balance longing with fact, how to separate ourselves from what used to be when the present is emphatically not as we would wish. Xunzi apprehended that where death is quick, leave-taking wants to be long. Our efforts at tending our dead, digging their graves, and ritual exercises of remembrance are actions undertaken in the gap, the gap between what has happened and our hesitant, unwilling adjustment to it. We need to do something, so we do what we can to make it seem as if they recede from view rather than bluntly disappear: We dig, we weep, we memorialize. In this, Xunzi understood the irrelevance or, perhaps more kindly, impotence of the merely doxastic in taking leave of our dead. What we believe about our dead matters far less in grief than what we do.
Like many contemporary philosophers, Xunzi assumed that the dead are just that – gone, from us, from life, from existence. But Xunzi did not imagine that this stone cold fact signified much. Fact pales before desire and desire wants translating into action, into doing. In early China, one form of doing was the soul-summoning ritual. Upon the death of a beloved, the bereaved would take to the rooftop to beg their dead to return – ritually pleading, “Come back!” – no matter how impossible one knew this to be. Because, Xunzi might say, the longing is the thing. What matters most is not that our dead cannot come back to us but the helpless, hopeless, and most important desire that they could. The wish too is a fact and it is one of the more exquisite human facts, the felt power of our longings to go on a little longer with those we love. If we are not to be false to this more important fact, we need somewhere to go with it, to give it its due, and the rooftop seems as good a place as any. As does the graveyard, digging through layers of rock to make a place that is not a hole.
As I age and accrue the losses that age brings, philosophers who think their own deaths the most challenging breed in me a certain contempt. People like mine, who historically lacked the leisure for philosophy, have long died stoically themselves but only uneasily bury their own in country cemeteries, graves we’ll also maintain if they are to be maintained. People like mine do not so much dispose of the dead but hold them in our charge. And this perhaps works a fundamental difference in consciousness of death. When I die, my kin will bury me alongside our other dead. They’ll sing “I’ll Fly Away,” even as I lay manifestly grounded beneath the rocky soil, because announcing that melancholic hope is what we have always done, and done most when we believe it least. And, at long last, mine will be one more grave alongside which they'll picnic on Decoration Day, perhaps sometimes sparing my grave a lonely word. In all of this, for me, my own death really figures little. I’ll not be doing anything in dying my ancestors have not already done. Its banality is the consolation, if some is needed.
The trouble I discern is that the death that matters to me is not my own. It does not sit on a distant horizon, nor will its coming be singular. It will instead come and keep coming, a serial experience belonging to me by way of others I would not lose if I had power. The problem isn’t death, but deaths. It is not dying, but grave digging, and that requires raw and muscular work too easily lost in philosophy’s most indolent abstractions. To grieve and mourn, one does not want those who will too ably measure and make tidy life’s alarming collapses. One wants philosophers who fall apart, who come undone with weeping, talk to graves, and cry out for the return of souls that don’t exist. One wants those who tarry in the trouble because they feel it and know it has no ready resolution. If it will ever yield to reason and reflection, these will come late and incompletely, and only after digging is done.