Monday, May 28, 2012

Dis Manibus Sacrum

These words appeared on Roman tombstones, even into the Christian era.  Sometimes, only the words "Dis Manibus" were used, sometimes only the initials, D M (the Romans were partial to abbreviations, particularly when it came to the strenuous and no doubt expensive business of putting letters on stone or marble).  To the spirits of the dead.  We come to another Memorial Day.

It is a day on which we are to remember those who have died, especially those who have died while members of, or who are or have served in, the armed forces.  Instead, some of us spend the day golfing (as did your humble writer of posts on this blog) or in parades or seeing relatives; it is after all a holiday.  There are memorials I should visit and would like to visit, regardless of their service.  My grandparents are buried near the graves of Al Capone and Frank Nitti and among others who were of Italian descent and were in Chicago when they died.  Many of my parents' generation served in the armed forces; some dead, some yet to die.

I did not.  I turned 18 during the Vietnam War, and duly registered for the draft but was not drafted.  I came of draft age during the latter part of that war, and less and less of us were being selected.  I went to college and so no doubt was subject to deferments.  I think I would have served if drafted.

In the increasingly distant days of my youth, those who served were not honored as they should have been.  Now it seems they are, but because we feel (those of the Vietnam era especially, perhaps) we have not done so as appropriate in the past, we may be said to overdo it, strange as that may seem.  That is due to the the seemingly constant use of the word "heroes."  This devalues the word.  When everyone is a hero, there are few heroes, properly speaking.  It has become a kind of cant, unfortunately.  There is something disturbing about the constant reference to anyone who wears a uniform as being a hero, even something insincere, perhaps even patronizing.  We have become like Uriah Heep, but instead of being perpetually humble we perpetually tout our many heroes. 

That those who serve do something honorable is clear.  That they put themselves in harm's way when in combat is apparent.  So we should honor them, but I don't think we do so when we call all of them heroes, as a matter of course. 

Honoring the dead is an odd business.  They're beyond our ceremonies.  Nonetheless we give them honor and have done so apparently throughout our history.  It is one of our peculiarities.  Creatures are deemed human when they begin to do this for, or to, their dead.  It is a cliche that our ceremonies for the dead are in fact for the living, but in the past there was a real concern that the dead would not take a lack of respect kindly, and would make this known.

Honoring the dead is just something that we do.  I wonder if we do so merely as a custom derived from an ancient fear.  I think, though, that we believe it to be something that should be done.  A sense of duty is involved.  It's one of those "shoulds" which raise questions regarding duty, regarding the role of ethics and morality in our lives.  I'm surprised I know of no philosopher who has done so, but think there must be one who has or does.  It may be similar to altruism, as we can expect no benefit from the dead, beyond the fact that they will, if placated and given their customary honors, not cause us concern.  Somehow, though, they always seem to do just that.

P.S.  I see someone named Chris Hayes of MSNBC has got himself into trouble for expressing discomfort with the use of the word "hero."  His error, I think, was to question its use to describe fallen soldiers (instead of to anyone who has ever worn a uniform), but more importantly to speculate that the use of the word may be used to glorify war and is being used to justify "more war."  I think not.  The days when we sought war in order to die a heroic death are over for most of us, and I doubt those who seek to justify war, to the extent they exist, mean to do so by urging us to die in one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I was checking the meaning of DM(S) on some memorials we saw in Rome on a brief visit. From Latin lessons way back I had an idea it was to show respect to the gods. I even remembered the 'manibus' but got mixed up with 'hands'. Of course I now remember the 'manes' - the 'souls of the dead'. As you say abbreviations saved a lot of stone-carving. Best wishes. Ian Potts.