[August 10, 2020] Each year in the United States and nearly every country on Earth, there is a time set aside to honor those who died in their service to the Nation. Memorial Day 2020 was on May 25th, and I wrote about this topic to note the sacredness of the holiday.1 But rarely do we ask the question, Why do we honor our dead?
Whether we speak of our war dead or our long-lost ancestors, there seems to be something that draws us into remembering those who came before us. Maybe they helped make the world a better place or made it possible for us to succeed. Or, perhaps they showed us how to sacrifice for a better future. Regardless, honoring the dead is a behavior practiced across all cultures and also across time.
We also spend loads of money and time to honor our dead. From the cost of a casket and burial site to bringing up their memory, remembering lessons they gave us, and purchasing symbols of how we loved and respected them. Funerals are expensive, and, on average, an American spends around $9,0002 for a burial. Our emotions are in high gear during this time as we follow the path to honor those who came before us.
Some archaeologists and a few psychologists have proposed that honoring the dead serves an ancient need. It is a bit surprising that today, there is still generally no accepted theory concerning ancestor veneration. Yet, some believe that by honoring our dead, we are fostering group cohesion.3 Group cohesion, of course, leads to a higher probability of group survival. Thus, honor the dead serves as a societal survival mechanism.
The reasons for honoring the dead may have changed, but hour human nature to do so has not changed. Many venerate the dead by publicizing their lifetime of works, passing along their valued possessions, preserving photographs and stories, and by planting flowers near their graves. I regularly tell the stories of my relatives who were in various famous military battles in the American Revolutionary War and Civil War. I’m proud of what they did. I want to tell of their exploits, pains and failures, and of their successes.
We no longer need to honor our dead relatives to survive, but we do need their thinking. What they thought can help make our day a little bit brighter. I’ve traveled many miles out of my way to visit a grave. I attend all funeral services that are possible. And, I talk to both relatives and friends to discover what they do to honor our dead. In that, I’m a better person for it.