What ancient Greece teaches us about the commemoration of the dead
June 6, 2022
Professor Joel Christensen is the chairman of the department of Classical studies at Brandeis University. This article originally appeared on The conversation.
The official tally of Americans lost to COVID-19 exceeded one million. It’s the latest grim milestone that has marked the rise in deaths and infections since the virus took hold in the United States in March 2020.
Such numbers make it difficult to commemorate individuals – a problem that has existed through the ages.
As a scholar who studies Greek myth and wrote a book on psychology and Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey“I continue to try to understand what we have been through in the United States in the age of COVID-19 through my research.
The Greek texts cannot name all of their countless fallen heroes, but they show how to honor the lives of those who lost in war or plague, and the importance of doing so.
Moral Tales and the Countless Deaths
Some early texts on the dead in plagues and war of ancient Greece emphasize the difference between individuals who drag their citizens into disasters and the masses of people who suffer and die because of them.
Homer’s other epic, “The Iliad”, which is set in the conflict between the Greeks and the city of Troy, begins by lamenting the “a myriad of Greeks sent to their doomnot by the war itself but by the superhuman rage of Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and the most powerful of the Greek warriors. Achilles’ rage during the war against his commander, Agamemnon, leads to the death of his own people.
Unnamed victims also haunt Sophocles’ Athenian tragedy, “Oedipus Tyrannus” or “Oedipus the King”, when a plague afflicts the city of Thebes. An oracle says that the plague will not end until the murderer of Oedipus’ father, Laius, is brought to justice. Oedipus struggles to realize that he is the killer and the cause of the plague, like the one who murdered his father and married his mother, without knowing who they are.
Probably the most famous account of an ancient Greek plague comes from Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”, a generational war between the city-states of Athens and Sparta from 432 to 404 av. 430 BC
First-person account of Thucydides describes fevers and boils and frustrated doctors, but little sense of the individuals who suffered from it. Instead, it focuses on the breakdown of social order, how people have abandoned their neighbors and loved ones, and how, shockingly, traditional traditions funeral rites have been abandoned.
Modern estimates place Athenian losses in this plague at 25% of the population, perhaps more than 75,000 people.
Can we even design the numbers?
Homer and Sophocles do not give names to individuals among the dead masses. As the narrator of the Iliad announces, someone would need “ten mouths and an inexhaustible voiceto name all those who fought at Troy. The contrast between the large number of undifferentiated deaths and the heroes or leaders responsible for them helps readers think about guilt. But it could also be a reflection of the limits of human cognition.
Our brain is not well adapted to understand large numbers: we are good at comparing sums, but the larger a number, the more difficult it is for us to attach concrete meaning to it. This is partly why the COVID-19 milestone death toll of 100,000 and 1,000,000 mean perhaps as much to us as the “myriad of Greek deaths” at the beginning of the “Iliad”.
Our ability to identify with and feel compassion for victims of violence decreases as the number of victims increases, leaving us numb. We are also psychologically more apt to mourn our loved ones, or a handful of people, that a group. This is, sadly, why massacres and genocides are so difficult to deal with emotionally for many people.
Burial and rhetoric
Our inability to understand large numbers of the dead renders them faceless and nameless. This can create tension with practices to honor those we have lost. The burial of mythical Greek centers rites such as honor due to the dead. Their practices included the care of the body through cremation or burial, but also through lamentation and the creation of memory.
Indeed, the last two books of Homer’s “Iliad” are lessons in how to commemorate the dead. First, Achille organizes a funeral and games in honor of his friend Patroclusthen the Trojans recover and mourn their fallen defender, Hektor.
Modern funeral eulogies work in part to help create a shared memory of a lost loved one. COVID-19, however, has not only exhausted people’s ability to grieve because of numbers, it also upset memorial practices.
In ancient Athens there was a practice of providing a annual funeral speech for those who had died in the service of the city. The speech was a sacred occasion that honored the dead as a group. These discourses tied their sacrifice to civic survival and state glory, situating their deaths within a story that connected their survivors’ past to future endeavours.
One of the most famous examples of ancient rhetoric comes from this practice. Thucydides places the Pericles’ funeral speech, ruler of Athens and architect of its war with Sparta, at the end of the first year of the conflict, just before the outbreak of the plague. Pericles rallies his people not to mourn their losses but to praise their sacrifice.
The counting policy
Nations can choose to commemorate the dead through a monument or a holiday. This memorialization is a matter of public and political will. But the number of lives lost is subject to selection.
Deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, for example, can be underestimated by a third due to local and national decisions on record keeping and classification. The impact of these losses is impossible to estimate. Around the world, COVID-19 has become a long-term disabling event for millions of people. In the United States only, a quarter of a million children have lost a caregiver to the pandemic.
It’s important to count the numbers and tell their stories, because what countries officially count in part tells who they think counts. Consider, for example, that the the number of Iraqis and Afghans killed during the American wars in these regions is not known. On the other hand, the the number of American servicemen killed is well known.
The contrast between what is countable and what is felt puts the narratives of the Iliad, Oedipus and Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” under tension. Misread, these accounts glorify their failing leaders, but careful examination can help readers see how much was lost to preserve a handful of names.
The number of our nations today will go a long way in telling future generations the story of the era of COVID-19. And it will also help define those who lived through it.