Mourning the dead is a common act among us humans. The pain of losing our loved ones is often so overwhelming that mourning becomes our natural reaction. There’s also a social and cultural dimension to it as mourning becomes an obligation owed to the dead, meaning that we’re literarily compelled by society to mourn our deceased one. Imagine a bereaved wife laughing and frolicking during her husband’s burial rather than mourning him. She will indeed be lucky to escape the accusation of being her hubby’s killer!
But why do we mourn when we lose a loved one? Are we mourning because of our sympathy for the dead whose life has been irretrievably snatched from him or because of the pain of having been separated from someone we are fond of? Maybe, we mourn for these two reasons. However, while it will be understandable if we mourn because of pain of separation from our loved one, mourning out of sympathy for the dead may not be easily justified. Is there any sense in pitying the dead when we’re not certain we’re better off than them? “He could not live to reap the fruit of his labour.” “Why must she die now she is about to start enjoying life?” “This is a very untimely death.” The above are some of the lamentations typically heard from those that lost a loved one, and which reveals an underlying belief that the living are better off than the dead.
But are we really better off? There’s no sure answer to this question as long as no one has ever crossed over to the death side of existence and successfully returned to let us know what it’s like there. However, some persons who have had what’s popularly known as “near death experience” have usually told stories that suggest that the dead is much better off. Near death experience occurs when a person has been certified clinically dead but eventually regains consciousness. American philosopher and psychologist, Raymond Moody’s survey of people who have had this experience shows that irrespective of cultural and religious backgrounds, such persons, while physically “dead”, find themselves in a strange world where they experience the following: (i) golden light illuminating everywhere (ii) weightlessness which makes them float (iii) total ecstasy (iv) floating movement usually via a tunnel until something intervenes to halt their joyous journey, bringing them back to life against their will. What Moody’s findings suggest is that crossing to the death side of existence is a sort of triumph; a victorious escape from the sufferings and sadness that permeate our earthly existence. If we go by this, then there should be no sympathy for the dead. Rather, it is the dead that should pity and mourn the living.
However, Moody’s findings have been doubted on the ground that these so-called after-death experiences could in fact be a product of dreaming and hallucinating, which are natural in humans. People’s wishes do manifest in their dreams. This is why Austrian psychologist, Sigmund Freud, described dreams as fulfilment of wishes. His view may be accepted on the ground that many things we experience in dreams – being served a sumptuous meal, having sex with a beautiful/handsome partner, escaping an enemy attack etc – are merely what we wish for in real life. Therefore, some persons have argued that these experiences told by people who had near death experience are mere dreams or hallucinations emanating from their wishes to experience a totally peaceful and joyous life hereafter.
However, while no one can be very certain that these experiences of people who had near death experience are genuine, we do not also have enough evidence to believe people who doubt their genuineness.
There is another argument that whether it makes sense to pity a dead person or not will be dependent on how the person lived his life on earth. In other words, we should pity people who had lived badly on earth because their death is a tragic event as it ushers them into a terrible phase of pain and suffering that are worse than whatever one can possibly suffer on earth. A school of thought has it that one way of knowing that a dead person is being punished upon death is that certain disturbing phenomenon may begin to manifest. Stories have been told of such people who upon death were appearing to the living to torment them. This, according to some esoteric writers, shows that such dead are restless where they’re. Mortuary attendants have reported that certain corpses “disturb”, causing havoc in the mortuary. A dead relative of mine, while in a mortuary at Onitsha, was reported to have caused some havoc. Every morning, mortuary attendants came to find every other corpses taken down from their positions to the floor with only this man’s corpse remaining in the proper position. This is taken as evidence that the dead is having a tough time where he is. If this is so, then such dead requires our sympathy. We may not be blamed if we mourn out of real pity for them.
However, there is this belief that some dead persons do desire to return to life, meaning that their experience over there is worse than what they experienced on earth. But how did people who make this claim know that any dead person has ever desired to return to life? The evidence they present is hinged on reports that some dead persons do appear among the living wherein they attempt to do some of the things they did while alive. Such persons are said to desire to come back to earthly life. An example is a story told by one of my primary school teachers about one of her husband’s relatives who died when his wife, during a quarrel, hit him on the neck with a wood. This man was eventually reported to be appearing in his pens some afternoons to feed goats as he used to do before his death. This caused some panic. A man from the same village asked to be invited around the time the man usually appeared. He was invited, and when the dead man “reappeared”, this man spoke to him “Moses you’re dead, stop coming to visit the living. There’s no relationship between the living and the dead.” As the story went, that was the end of the man’s appearance. This story tends to lend credence to the claim by esoteric writers that persons whose deaths are very sudden may be going around among the living without knowing they’re dead. This, according to them, is why such things are seen more among people who died as a result of accident or violence. Such persons just need to be told that they’re dead, so that they will cease to be restless.
Popular Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Dr. R. C. Arazu, told a story of how in 1989, he received a call from his hometown of Ihembosi in Ekwusigo LGA in the present day Anambra State that his relative who just died and was buried was appearing in the compound. The man’s wife and his mother were the two people reported as seeing this dead man. Fr. Arazu said he urgently drove down home from his Enugu base. Once he arrived, he asked that candles be lighted round the man’s grave, after which they sang some psalms, and he began to speak to the dead “John hear now that you’re now a dead man. Kindly leave the living alone.” This was the end of the man’s reported appearance, according to the priest.
If these accounts really happened, do they not prove that death brings bad experience to the dead, hence dead people desire to return to life. Therefore, we should pity the dead and mourn them because they are now worse off. However, a closer attention to these accounts shows that those dead persons alleged to be appearing to the living did so simply because they’re unaware that they have died. They just need to be informed of this so that they can proceed peacefully to the other side of life.
Perhaps, based on the belief in after-life justice, it’s only those who lived badly on earth that should be mourned. But that will be dependent on the correctness of the belief that bad people are punished when they die.
At this juncture, we should admit that as long as we are humans, we cannot with all certainty determine what happens to a man upon death. Therefore, our attempt to understand whether the dead requires our pity or not cannot be based on what happens after life, because we may never know this. Thus, we may have to restrict the source of our evidence to what we can see and touch. This is what philosophers have tried to do. They have answered the question by considering what the dead person stands to gain if he had lived on and what he stands to suffer in the same circumstance. In other words, philosophers weigh possible future pleasure against possible future pains to know whether the dead lost out. So, when we lament that a dead has lost the opportunity to enjoy good things of life, we may be ignoring the truth that death may equally have been the person’s saving grace, shielding him from future pains that may come from diseases, violence and the like. Therefore before mourning your dead out sympathy that death has robbed him of good things of life, remember that the same death may have also “robbed” him of bad things of life.
For all you know, the dead may be better off and may not even care about your sympathy and mourning.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD